Military attacks on ‘hospitals shields’: International law itself is partly to blame

Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini write: From the war in Afghanistan and the US-backed Saudi intervention in Yemen, to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Syrian civil war, hospitals have increasingly been targeted by military forces. The justification for many of these attacks has been uncannily similar: the hospitals were bombed because they were shielding combatants and therefore the attacks do not constitute a violation of international law. Hospitals, in other words, are now classified as if they are equivalent to human shields.

The figures are revealing. One year following the infamous US bombardment of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz — which Afghan Defense Ministry officials initially tried to justify on the theory that the Taliban were “using the hospital as the equivalent of a human shield” — the humanitarian organization reported that 77 of its medical facilities have been attacked during the last twelve months alone. Yes, that’s over six per month. In June 2016, a United Nations commission documented that in Syria “more than 700 doctors and medical personnel have been killed in attacks on hospitals since the beginning of the conflict” and that medical facilities “are being turned into rubble.”

Politicians and military officers from Gaza to Yemen use the same refrain to defend these attacks. During its 2014 war on Gaza, Israel bombed different Palestinian medical facilities, destroying parts of one hospital and 5 primary health care centers. In an attempt to defend its strikes, Israel accused Hamas of using hospitals to store weapons and hide armed militants.

In a similar vein, after the recent bombardment of an underground medical facility in a rebel controlled area, a Syrian regime official declared that militants would be targeted wherever they were found, “on the ground and underground,” while his Russian patron explained that rebels were using “so-called hospitals as human shields.”

Saudi officials attempting to justify the high number of air strikes targeting medical facilities have adopted the same catchphrases. They, too, accused their adversaries, the Houthi militias, of using hospitals to hide their military forces. This exact claim is also reiterated in a recent UN report.

What ties all of these examples together is not merely the use of similar rhetoric, but more importantly the same underlying assumption: when health care facilities become “hospital shields” they lose the protected status they are granted by the Geneva Conventions. Thus, once framed as shields, these facilities can be bombarded without violating international law.

Let there be no mistake, “hospital shield” is an extremely dangerous neologism since it undermines one of the founding pillars of international law: the principle of distinction between legitimate military targets and protected civilian sites. The tragic irony is that international humanitarian law itself offers the legal toolkit for these regimes to justify the bombing of hospitals. It does so in two ways. [Continue reading…]

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