New York

03 May 2016

Secretary-General's remarks to Security Council on Health Care in Armed Conflict [as delivered]

Let me begin by welcoming the presence of Mr. Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Dr. Joanne Liu, International President of Médecins Sans Frontières. 

The ICRC and MSF are our good partners, playing unique and vital roles in conflict and disaster areas.  Through their leaders here today, I want to thank and commend all of their personnel for their professionalism and dedication in serving people in danger and distress across the world.

Last week, MSF’s head of mission in Aleppo underscored the urgency and importance of efforts such as today’s resolution.

“No corner is being spared”, he said.  And he added: “Aleppo is already a shell of what it once was; this most recent assault appears determined to eliminate even that”.

He was reacting to an air strike, by all accounts by the Government of Syria, that destroyed a hospital, killing at least 20 people, including three children and the area’s one and only pediatrician, Dr. Mohammad Wassim Maaz.

Yet this appalling act was only the latest wartime assault on health care in Syria. 

Since the beginning of the conflict, Physicians for Human Rights has documented more than 360 attacks on some 250 medical facilities.  More than 730 medical personnel have been killed. 

Today, almost half of all medical facilities in Syria are now closed or only partially functioning.  Millions of Syrians lack life-saving healthcare.

A similar pattern of systematic destruction of health facilities is evident in Yemen. More than 600 medical facilities have closed because of damage sustained in the conflict and shortages of supplies and medical workers.

Last year, the United Nations verified 59 attacks against 34 hospitals. In January this year, Coalition air strikes hit the Shiara Hospital, which serves around 120,000 people in Sa’ada Governorate.

Following the attack, pregnant women were reportedly forced to give birth in caves rather than risk travelling to the hospital.

And last October in Kunduz, Afghanistan, a bombing by United States military destroyed another MSF hospital and killed dozens, as patients were burned alive in their beds.

These patterns are repeated in other conflicts, including in Iraq and South Sudan, where violence against healthcare is multiplying the difficulties of already fragile health systems.

Such attacks must end.  When so-called surgical strikes end up hitting surgical wards, something is deeply wrong.

Explanations ring hollow to parents burying their children and communities pushed closer to collapse.

All too often, there is no respect for the sick and no sanctity for those who provide care.

All too often, attacks on health facilities and medical workers are not just isolated or incidental battlefield fallout, but rather the intended objective of the combatants.

This is shameful and inexcusable. 

In Syria, Government forces systematically remove medical supplies from humanitarian convoys.

In Syria and elsewhere, Governments impose cumbersome procedures that restrict access to healthcare.  This is strangulation by red tape.  It is violence by bureaucratic means rather than force of arms, but it is just as devastating. 

Let us be clear: Intentional and direct attacks on hospitals are war crimes.  Denying people access to essential health care is a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

All State and non-State parties to conflict are bound by a strict obligation to respect and protect medical personnel, facilities and vehicles, as well as the wounded and sick.

Parties to conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief, including medical missions.

These obligations are at the very heart of international humanitarian law.

This Council and all Member States must do more than condemn such attacks.  They must  use every ounce of influence to press parties to respect their obligations. 

They must press for perpetrators to be held fully accountable.

The resolution you have just adopted demonstrates the Council’s determination to strengthen the protection of healthcare in armed conflict.

For the sake of humanity, I urge all Member States, parties to conflict and other relevant actors to heed the Council’s demands.

Facilitate humanitarian access.

Develop domestic legal frameworks that protect health facilities and medical workers.

Train armed forces so they understand their obligations.

Prosecute those responsible for such attacks and other violations.

Mr. President,

The growing insecurity of medical services is part of a broader trend of blatant disregard for international law in armed conflict.

Across the world, parties to conflict are disregarding the most basic rules of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Every day, civilians are deliberately or indiscriminately killed or injured. Densely populated towns and cities are pummelled by air strikes and heavy shelling.

Millions of people have fled their homes into perilous and uncertain futures.  Impunity compounds the crime.

Last October, ICRC President Peter Maurer and I issued a joint statement calling on States to take urgent action to uphold international law and address human suffering.

I repeat that call in this chamber today. 

Even wars have rules; it is time to uphold and enforce them. No Government should stand by and watch the erosion of safeguards for the protection of civilians in conflict.  The international community must never become numb to flagrant abuses.

Affirming our common humanity will be a key theme at the World Humanitarian Summit meeting in Istanbul on May 23rd and 24th – and it highlights the importance and timeliness of this first-of-its-kind event.

I encourage Member States to seize the opportunity of the Summit to take concrete action to uphold the norms that safeguard humanity.

Our world confronts disasters of staggering size and complexity.  125 million people need humanitarian assistance, and at least 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes or countries.

The World Humanitarian Summit is the moment to come together to renew our commitment to preventing and ending crisis, and to show we are steadfast in reducing suffering and vulnerability.

We need the full engagement and commitment of all partners – Governments and NGOs.  We can only strengthen humanitarian response and fulfil this duty to the world’s most vulnerable by working together.

The success of the World Humanitarian Summit is in your hands.

Finally, I appeal to Member States to work with greater intensity to find political solutions to end bloodshed and suffering. 

As the skies over Aleppo and other parts of Syria continue to be filled with barrel bombs and artillery fire, we must all work relentlessly to rescue the cessation of hostilities.  This is crucial for saving lives, for the credibility of the political process, and indeed – once again – this Council.

Thank you, Mr. President.