On Nov. 16, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement condemning a series of massive attacks on five hospitals in Syria — three in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and two in the town of Idleb — that had occurred during the preceding three days. These most recent hospital bombings represent a shocking escalation in an already horrifying systematic military campaign against health care infrastructure in Syria throughout 2016.
While the WHO avoided identifying the parties responsible for these most recent attacks, several news organizations, including The New York Times, CNN and the BBC, pinned the blame for these atrocities squarely on Syrian government forces.
Two of the Aleppo hospitals targeted by government forces were major trauma centers that provided surgical care to thousands of critically injured patients. One of the two hospitals hit in Idleb was a key referral hospital for comprehensive emergency obstetric care, where more than 200 major surgeries and 600 deliveries occurred each month.
Particularly disturbing were government airstrikes with barrel bombs against Aleppo’s only children’s hospital and a nearby central blood bank. Dr. Hatem, director of the children’s hospital and one of its three remaining pediatricians, told CNN that medical staff and all patients were forced to seek shelter during the bombing in one room in the facility’s basement.
In its Nov. 16 statement, the WHO asserted that the “pattern of attacks indicates that health care is being deliberately targeted in the Syrian conflict – this is a major violation of international law and a tragic disregard of our common humanity. … The attack of five hospitals and a mobile clinic in less than 48 hours is an outrage that puts many more lives in danger in Syria and deprives the most vulnerable – including children and pregnant women – of their right to health services, just at the time when they need them most.”
Intentionally directing attacks against hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected is considered a war crime under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, which took effect in 2002. As the preamble to the statute states, “such grave crimes threaten the peace, security and well-being of the world.”
The senior leadership of Syria — including President Bashar al-Assad, who is himself a physician — must be brought before the International Criminal Court, headquartered at The Hague in the Netherlands, and prosecuted for their war crimes against the country’s civilian population.
If the civilized world allows these war crime perpetrators to escape with impunity, there will be little hope of deterring similar crimes in the future.
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