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Issue Brief June 14, 2022

Attacks on hospitals from Syria to Ukraine: Improving prevention and accountability mechanisms 

By Elise Baker and Gissou Nia

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it soon began implementing one of its frequent—and criminal—tactics that it had already been using in its military intervention in Syria: bombing healthcare and medical facilities. Syrian government forces first began targeting health workers in Syria in 2011 at the start of the Syria crisis, and Russia joined them in targeting the healthcare system upon its official entrance to the conflict in 2015. Over the course of the conflict, over 90 percent of 601 recorded attacks on medical facilities were attributable to either Syrian or Russian forces. In Ukraine, Russia has reportedly perpetrated more than 200 attacks on healthcare facilities and ambulances since the start of the invasion. 

The well-documented pattern of targeted attacks on healthcare in Syria and Ukraine undermines long-established and hard-won provisions under international humanitarian law intended to protect civilians during conflict. Despite the scale of the problem, which extends beyond Syria and Ukraine, there has been no prominent criminal prosecution of any alleged perpetrators of attacks on healthcare in any conflict, no establishment of a UN mandate dedicated to this issue, and no task force created by national governments specifically aimed at prevention of and accountability for these crimes. The international community’s failure to compel meaningful action to stop the criminal practice of targeting healthcare in conflict after conflict has resulted in continued deaths of health workers and civilian populations.

In a new issue brief by the Atlantic Council Strategic Litigation Project‘s Elise Baker and Gissou Nia, the two propose recommendations to UN bodies, the World Health Organization, national governments and other institutions and decision makers for concrete actions to prevent future attacks and advance accountability for past ones.

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Image: A damaged ambulance and hospital are pictured at a site hit by overnight airstrike, in Kafr Takharim, northwest of Idlib city, Syria April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah