World

UN Security Council nations 'associated' with hospital attacks in war, Doctors Without Borders head says

The Canadian international president of Doctors Without Borders pleads with the UN Security Council to turn its words into action, minutes after the council unanimously adopted a resolution denouncing attacks on health-care facilities in armed conflict.

Patients fighting for their lives no longer 'out of bounds,' Canadian doctor says at UN briefing

Women walk past damage near the Doctors Without Borders-backed al-Quds hospital after it was hit by airstrikes, in a rebel-held area of Syria's Aleppo, on April 28. Since then, two more health-care facilities in the city have been hit. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

The Canadian serving as international president of Doctors Without Borders pleaded today with the UN Security Council to turn its words into action after the council unanimously adopted a resolution denouncing attacks on health-care facilities in armed conflict.

Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders told the UN Security Council on Tuesday to 'stop these attacks' on hospitals in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Associated Press/Keystone)

"Your work has only begun." Dr. Joanne Liu said in New York City. "This resolution cannot end up like so many others, including those passed on Syria over the past five years, routinely violated with impunity."

In the last week alone, three hospitals have been destroyed by bombing in Aleppo, Syria, as government forces and rebels battle for control of the country's largest city. Both sides have been blamed.   

Liu, a pediatric emergency doctor from Montreal, told the Security Council she's haunted daily by the words of a nurse whose arm had been blown off in a U.S. airstrike that hit the trauma centre of Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last October.  

Health-care workers had been assured the facility was a safe place, Liu said the nurse told her.  

"We believed you," she recalled him as saying. She said he then asked her if she knew if they would be bombed. 

"I told him that until Oct. 3, I truly believed that the hospital was a safe place," Liu told the UN meeting on Tuesday. "I cannot say that anymore about any medical facilities on the front lines today." 

The Security Council drafted the resolution after an increase in bombings on hospitals and medical clinics in war-torn countries, including Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, over the last several months.

In its draft resolution, the Security Council stressed that these acts violate international laws, including the Geneva Conventions. 

But Liu named some of the Security Council nations that she is accusing of being part of the problem. 

"You are charged with protecting peace and security," she said. "Yet four of the five members of this council have, to varying degrees, been associated with coalitions responsible for attacks on health structures over the last year. 

"These include the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen [and] the Russia-backed, Syrian-led coalition," Liu continued. "You, therefore, must live up to your extraordinary responsibilities, and set an example for all states."

Both Liu and Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), emphasized that the problem is not that the rules of war have changed, but that they aren't being honoured.  

International Red Cross president Peter Maurer told the Security Council on Tuesday the targeting of hospitals and medical facilities in war was an abomination. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

"It is no coincidence that the very first Geneva Convention, in 1864, pertained to the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick," Maurer said in his address to the Security Council.

But wars have moved from "open battlefields to urban areas," he said, and "the wounded and sick are no longer just those in uniform."

"We can no longer assume that fully functioning hospitals, in which patients are fighting for their lives, are out of bounds," Liu said. "Hospitals and patients have been dragged onto the battlefield."

Maurer said the ICRC noted 2,400 attacks against patients, medical staff, health facilities and medical transport vehicles in 11 countries within a three-year period. 

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story said the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution denouncing attacks on health-care facilities in armed conflict. In fact, it unanimously adopted the resolution.
    May 03, 2016 2:56 PM ET

About the Author

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from Melissa Kent

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