Friday, December 1, 2023

Attack on healthcare facilities on a rise due to Russia-Ukraine conflict, WHO says

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According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 70 distinct attacks on hospitals, ambulances, and physicians in Ukraine, with the number growing on a “daily basis” (WHO).

According to the report, attacking healthcare institutions has become an element of modern military strategy and tactics.

The freshly remodelled central hospital in Izyum, south of Kharkiv, was a recent victim on March 8. According to Ukrainian officials, it was struck by Russian shelling.

The main hospital building was severely damaged, according to video and photographs released online by the city’s deputy mayor. A new welcome area that was erected just a year ago was entirely demolished.

The tape has been authenticated by the BBC and other media sites, but the precise circumstances of the incident remain unknown at this moment.

“The windows of the hospital blew out after the first attack,” deputy mayor Volodymyr Matsokin told the BBC

He went on to say that a second strike destroyed the hospital’s operating rooms.

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According to Ukrainian officials, hospital workers were treating toddlers, pregnant women, and three newborns, as well as troops and civilians injured in the region’s severe combat on that day.

At the time of the attack, they were taking refuge in the basement, and no one was killed.

The government had spent millions of dollars to construct adequate facilities with contemporary equipment, Mr. Matsokin explained. “To escape, patients had to crawl out of the rubble on their own.”

The BBC contacted the Russian embassy in London about the strike but received no answer, despite Moscow previously denying intentionally targeting people.

The WHO has examined and confirmed 72 distinct attacks on healthcare institutions in Ukraine since February 24, resulting in at least 71 fatalities and 37 injuries.

The majority have caused damage to hospitals, medical transportation, and supply stores, but the WHO has also documented “possible” abductions or detentions of healthcare professionals and patients.

“We are concerned that this figure is growing on a daily basis,” said Jarno Habicht, WHO’s Ukraine national representative, to the BBC.

“Healthcare facilities should be safe havens for both physicians and nurses, as well as individuals seeking treatment. This should not be happening.”

The Geneva Conventions apply because the situation in Ukraine is an international armed conflict between two governments.

The treaties, which were expanded in the aftermath of World War II, lay forth the basic rights of citizens and military personnel, as well as protection for the injured and sick. They were approved in 1954 by what was then the Soviet Union. According to Article 18 of the Conventions, “civilian hospitals” “must under no circumstances be the target of an assault, but should be respected and defended at all times.”

A violation of that norm can be examined by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and if determined to constitute a war crime, the offenders can be tried and punished. However, there are exceptions to the conventions.

If the medical institution is located near a genuine military target or is suspected of doing an act “harmful to the enemy,” it is no longer protected from attack.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), this may involve using a hospital as a shield for healthy troops or positioning a medical unit to obstruct an enemy attack.

“What we have now, in fact, is a scenario where hospitals and medical facilities have become fair game,” said Neve Gordon, professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London.

According to the ICRC, before attacking a hospital that may be in violation of those guidelines, the attacking party must always provide a warning with a time limit, and the opposing side must have rejected that warning.

There is no indication that this occurred during the Ukrainian conflict.

Prof. Gordon would want to see a far tougher blanket ban on any attack on medical institutions under international law, akin to the United Nations’ ban on torture, which went into effect in 1987.

Exemptions from the Geneva Conventions have been invoked to justify assaults on hospitals and medical units in postwar wars dating back to Korea and Vietnam.

However, the trend looks to be accelerating fast, owing in part to the increased employment of ballistic missiles, drones, and other longer-range weaponry.

According to the US advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights, at least 244 distinct attacks on healthcare institutions in Syria have been connected to Russian or local troops since 2011.

At one point, the organisation Médecins Sans Frontières even decided to stop giving the GPS coordinates of some of its health facilities with the Syrian government or its Russian partners, fearing they might become direct targets as a consequence.

Russian authorities denied purposely striking hospitals in Syria and said that “jihadists” in the country often sought refuge in safe civilian structures.

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