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…]


If we don’t act now, all future wars may be as horrific as Aleppo

Paul Mason writes: To single day of fighting in June 1859, among the vineyards and villages near Lake Garda, left 40,000 Italian, French and Austrian soldiers dead or wounded. The Battle of Solferino might have been remembered simply for its carnage, but for the presence of Henry Dunant. Dunant, a Swiss traveller, spent days tending the wounded and wrote a memoir that led to the founding of the Red Cross and to the first Geneva convention, signed by Europe’s great powers in 1864.

Solferino inspired the principle that hospitals and army medical personnel are not a legitimate target in war. Today, with the bombing of hospitals by the Russians in Syria, the Saudis in Yemen and the Americans in Afghanistan, those who provide medical aid in war believe that principle is in ruins.

So far this year, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 21 of their supported medical facilities in Yemen and Syria have been attacked. Last year an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was destroyed by a US attack, in which those fleeing the building were reportedly gunned down from the air, and 42 patients and staff died.

A UN resolution in May urged combatants to refrain from bombing medical facilities. MSF says that the resolution “has made no difference on the ground”. Four out of the five permanent members of the UN security council, it says, are actively involved in coalitions whose troops have attacked hospitals.

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles. [Continue reading…]


Vladimir Putin just won an international peace prize

Max Bearak writes: The past few weeks have been rough for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s international image.

Putin has been blamed for airstrikes in Syria that have killed hundreds of civilians, including children, dooming a cease-fire his government helped foster but may have never intended to abide by. A Dutch investigation said the antiaircraft missiles that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, killing all 298 people aboard, came from Russia. And the Obama administration accused his government of a hacking campaign to interfere with this year’s U.S. presidential election.

But Friday, the day the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, brought him some welcome news: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro bestowed on Putin the Hugo Chávez Prize for Peace and Sovereignty of the Peoples. Putin can put it on his mantel beside China’s Confucius Peace Prize, which he won in 2011.

Maduro, whose South American nation has been reeling amid a massive economic crisis, announced the prize during the unveiling of a statue (designed by a Russian artist) of his deceased predecessor, Chávez, in the latter’s home town of Sabaneta.

Referencing Putin, Maduro said the prize should be given to “a leader that I believe is the most outstanding there is in the world today, a fighter for peace, for balance, and a builder of a pluripolar, multicentric world.” [Continue reading…]

Josh Rogin writes: There is clear and abundant evidence the Assad regime and the Russian government are committing crimes that include, but are not limited to, deliberate attacks on civilians, collective punishment, starvation as a tool of war, torture, murder, inhumane treatment of prisoners and the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, no near-term accountability seems likely. Last month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, a step dozens of countries have endorsed. But Russia would surely veto such a move and, since neither Syria nor Russia has ratified the ICC’s founding Rome Statute, the court’s power is limited without Security Council action.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria fecklessly refuses to assign blame for atrocities — such as, for example, when a U.N. aid convoy was attacked last month, which the United States attributed to Russia and which was yet another violation of international humanitarian law. Congress has a sanctions bill that would punish the Syrian government, Russia and Iran for war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the White House opposes that legislation.

Justice for the innocent victims in Syria will likely take years, if not decades, to be realized. But there is both precedent and a legal path forward for such prosecutions.

Russian soldiers bear criminal responsibility not only for participating in the war crimes but also for aiding and abetting the Syrian regime, said Cherif Bassiouni, who led the U.N. investigations into crimes in Yugoslavia, Bahrain and Libya and helped create the ICC. And, he said, due to what’s known in international law as the doctrine of command responsibility, senior Russian military and political figures could also be prosecuted for the actions of their subordinates.

“The criminal responsibility applies to all of those in the chain of command who know of the commission of these crimes, all the way up to Putin,” said Bassiouni. “The law is not only applicable to he who gives an order, but he who knows it’s a war crime and does nothing to stop it.”

Under the Geneva Conventions, any state can assert what’s known as universal jurisdiction and bring prosecutions against Syrian and Russia leaders for war crimes.

“Every country if it wanted to could assert its jurisdiction if it could grab the person,” said Bassiouni. “Every Russian officer involved should know they are exposed to it.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Russia should be investigated for war crimes in the Syrian city of Aleppo and risks becoming a pariah nation, Boris Johnson has said, taking the unusual step of calling for demonstrations by anti-war protesters outside the Russian embassy in London.

The British foreign secretary said “the mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind small” as he predicted those responsible for war crimes in Syria would eventually face charges before the international criminal court.

Johnson’s remarks underline the degree to which relations between Russia and the west have deteriorated to levels not seen since the end of the cold war. [Continue reading…]


UN chief condemns airstrike on Yemeni funeral and dismisses Saudi denials

The New York Times reports: The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on Monday condemned a weekend airstrike on a funeral ceremony in the Yemeni capital, Sana, as well as the Saudi-led bombing campaign believed to be responsible for it.

Mr. Ban said he supported demands for an international inquiry into whether the attack, which killed at least 140 people, was a war crime.

“Despite mounting crimes by all parties to the conflict, we have yet to see the results of any credible investigations,” he said. “This latest horrific incident demands a full inquiry.”

Brushing aside Saudi Arabia’s initial denials of responsibility, he said reports from the site of the attack indicated that it was carried out by the Saudi-led coalition.

According to witness accounts cited by United Nations human rights investigators, two airstrikes struck the Al Kubra community hall in Sana, seven to eight minutes apart. It was packed with families attending the funeral of a leader of the Houthi rebel movement, which is battling the Saudi-backed government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi for control of the country. Many prominent military and political leaders associated with the Houthis were in the hall and were killed in the assault, the United Nations said. [Continue reading…]

The Intercept reports: Fragments of what appear to be U.S.-made bombs have been found at the scene of one of the most horrific civilian massacres of Saudi Arabia’s 18-month air campaign in Yemen.

Aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition on Saturday bombed a community hall in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, where thousands of people had gathered for a funeral for Sheikh Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the rebel-appointed interior minister. The aircraft struck the hall four times, killing more than 140 people and wounding 525. One local health official described the aftermath as “a lake of blood.”

Multiple bomb fragments at the scene appear to confirm the use of American-produced MK-82 guided bombs. One fragment, posted in a picture on the Facebook page of a prominent Yemeni lawyer, says “FOR USE ON MK-82 FIN, GUIDED BOMB.” [Continue reading…]


U.S. ‘could be implicated in war crimes’ in Yemen

Reuters reports: The Obama administration went ahead with a $1.3 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year despite warnings from some officials that the United States could be implicated in war crimes for supporting a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians, according to government documents and the accounts of current and former officials.

State Department officials also were privately skeptical of the Saudi military’s ability to target Houthi militants without killing civilians and destroying “critical infrastructure” needed for Yemen to recover, according to the emails and other records obtained by Reuters and interviews with nearly a dozen officials with knowledge of those discussions.

U.S. government lawyers ultimately did not reach a conclusion on whether U.S. support for the campaign would make the United States a “co-belligerent” in the war under international law, four current and former officials said. That finding would have obligated Washington to investigate allegations of war crimes in Yemen and would have raised a legal risk that U.S. military personnel could be subject to prosecution, at least in theory.

For instance, one of the emails made a specific reference to a 2013 ruling from the war crimes trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor that significantly widened the international legal definition of aiding and abetting such crimes.

The ruling found that “practical assistance, encouragement or moral support” is sufficient to determine liability for war crimes. Prosecutors do not have to prove a defendant participated in a specific crime, the U.N.-backed court found.

Ironically, the U.S. government already had submitted the Taylor ruling to a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to bolster its case that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al Qaeda detainees were complicit in the Sept 11, 2001 attacks. [Continue reading…]


Aleppo’s White Helmets reject foreign influence claims

Al Jazeera reports: Members of the Syrian Civil Defence units – or White Helmets – have dismissed claims that they are biased actors in the conflict following a controversial report linking the organisation to alleged US government attempts to overthrow the Syrian government.

In an article published by US-based progressive website AlterNet on Monday, journalist Max Blumenthal accused the group of undermining United Nations aid work in Syria.

The two-part report, which was shared thousands of times on Twitter, was widely condemned by journalists and anti-Assad activists. [Continue reading…]


Whoever saves a life

In June 2014, Matthieu Aikins visited Aleppo and rode with Civil Defense volunteers (the “White Helmets”) in their donated truck in the neighborhood of Hanano. He wrote: The members of Civil Defense were attendants to the city’s trauma, one of the few first responders left to care for the civilians caught on the front lines in a war between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and rebel fighters. The team evacuated the injured, cleaned up the bodies, and fought fires. But what they were best known for  — what they had become famous for in Syria and abroad  — were the dramatic rescues, the lives they pulled from under the rubble.

When they spotted a blast, they’d cram into the cabin, ten or more on its two bench seats, and set off in search of the impact site. The truck had a loose, shaky suspension and the cab would smash up and down off the craters and potholes, jangling the men like change inside of a tin cup. The siren atop was an old-school wailer, deafening and sonorous. Sometimes they’d catch sight of an ambulance and give chase; often they’d be the first to the scene. As they rushed along, they’d lean out and ask pedestrians where the bomb had fallen. They could tell by the reaction if they were getting closer. At first it was just a pointed arm or a shrug, but as they neared, the onlookers would get increasingly agitated, until they saw in their eyes the wildness of a close brush with death or the panic for a trapped neighbor. The missions were all the more dangerous because of the regime’s tactic of “double-tap” strikes, where they would return to bomb the same site and hit the rescuers and whatever crowd had gathered. In March, three members of the Hanano team had been killed that way, along with an Egyptian-Canadian photographer who had come to document their work.

Khaled flicked the cigarette into the parking lot. Thirty years old, he looked more like a graduate student than someone who had spent the last year immersed in blood and rubble: shaggy hair, a straight, full-bridged nose and a pointed jaw softened by full lips and cheeks. In a city dominated increasingly by anti-Western Islamist groups, he had until recently worn a pony tail. He was growing a slight paunch from all the nights spent sitting up snacking on fruit and nuts, listening to the sound of the city’s bombardment and waiting for a call. When he smiled, a net of crow’s feet crinkled into the corners of his eyes, but mostly his face maintained an unshakable placidity, even in the presence of death. It was this stillness, more than anything else, that accounted for his unruly team’s respect and obedience. “It’s the quiet ones you should fear,” was how Surkhai, the group’s joker, had put it.

After washing his face in the rickety outbuilding that served as their bathroom, Khaled returned to his office, which was furnished with a scuffed desk, a shelf that held the station’s paperwork, and a couple of love seats. On the wall hung a certificate of appreciation from the city council. Two bare bulbs dangled from the ceiling.

Khaled could hear the rest of the team stirring. Present that day were some of his most reliable veterans  —  though of course they were really still boys. At 28, the twins, Surkhai and Shahoud, heavyset with thick hair covering everywhere but the top of their heads, were among the eldest. The rest were mostly 20 or 21. Scrawny Ali, with his mullet, was only 19. Only Ahmed, a lanky, goateed kid who had been a firefighter like his father, had any experience as a first responder before the war. In all, there were 30 of them, but they worked in shifts, so that only a dozen or so were typically in the station at any one time. Except for the leader, Khaled. He had not taken a single day off. He loved the team  —  loved the physical closeness, the emotional bond. These guys had become his life. His old self, the former law student who taught at a trade school, seemed as remote to him as his family’s home, now behind regime lines. [Continue reading…]


Selective outrage: Why the silence? What’s outrageous in Gaza is no less so in Aleppo

Fintan O’Toole writes: The United States and Israel are bombing an ancient city, targeting hospitals and slaughtering children, women and other non-combatants. All across Europe, ordinary people are appalled. Protest marches to the US and Israeli embassies attract hundreds of thousands of people, denouncing these crimes against humanity. But what if the perpetrators are Russia and the Assad regime in Syria? Protests against the bombing of Aleppo, such as that in Dublin last weekend, have been small and muted. Why are Russian war crimes so much less obnoxious than American atrocities?

On Vimeo, there’s a short film of a demonstration against the Aleppo bombing at the Russian embassy in Dublin on August 27th, led by the veteran peace campaigner Brendan Butler. It is a very fine gesture by compassionate and concerned people. But I counted the crowd stretching a banner across the entrance to the embassy. It didn’t take long – there are 14 people. One of them is a young boy with a poster that says “This isn’t happening in a galaxy far, far away”. But it might as well be. [Continue reading…]


U.S. was warned of attack on aid workers in Syria

Michael Weiss reports: Two days prior to devastating aerial attacks, Michael Ratney, the U.S. special envoy to Syria, was told the Assad regime was planning to hit the Aleppo facilities of the Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer rescue group.

Raed al-Saleh, the head of the organization, which is widely known as the White Helmets, was in Manhattan last week, where he told not only Ratney, but envoys from the Netherlands, Britain, and Canada. He said intercepted communications from military officers in the Assad regime signaled imminent plans to bomb several rescue centers, according to two sources who were in the room when al-Saleh transmitting this intelligence.

“We just received a message from the spotters, just an hour ago, they detected messages from the regime radio that they will attack [Syrian Civil Defense] centers in northern Aleppo,” one of those sources jotted down during the meeting, quoting al-Saleh. “First with surface to surface to missiles and, if they miss, they will use spies on the ground to adjust coordinates and come back.”

Within 48 hours, that forecast proved all too true, as three out of four of the White Helmet’s installations — one of them a makeshift firehouse, two others ambulance depots — were pulverized in Syria’s most populous city in acts that Western officials have called the deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians and humanitarian workers. [Continue reading…]


Russia accused of war crimes in Syria at UN security council session

The Guardian reports: Russia has been directly and repeatedly accused of war crimes at the UN security council in an unusually blunt session, as hopes of any form of ceasefire were flattened by the scale and ferocity of the Syrian regime’s assault on eastern Aleppo.

The war crimes accusations centred on the widespread use of bunker-busting and incendiary bombs on the 275,000 civilians living in the rebel-held east of the city, weapons that Moscow’s accusers say were dropped by Russian aircraft.

“Bunker-busting bombs, more suited to destroying military installations, are now destroying homes, decimating bomb shelters, crippling, maiming, killing dozens, if not hundreds,” Matthew Rycroft, the UK ambassador to the UN, said during the emergency security council session on Syria on Sunday.

“Incendiary munitions, indiscriminate in their reach, are being dropped on to civilian areas so that, yet again, Aleppo is burning. And to cap it all, water supplies, so vital to millions, are now being targeted, depriving water to those most in need. In short, it is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.” [Continue reading…]

Vox reports: One of the most disturbing features of the war in Syria — and there are many, many disturbing features of the war in Syria — has been the repeated attacks on medical facilities and personnel by Russian and Syrian government forces. The nonprofit advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights has called it “the worst campaign against health care anywhere in the world in recent memory.”

The latest attack came Wednesday, when four medical workers were reportedly killed and a nurse critically injured in an airstrike on a medical clinic in a village near the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims the strike was carried out by either Syrian or Russian warplanes.

This attack follows on the heels of a massive bombing of a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy on Monday that killed one aid worker and approximately 20 civilians, and destroyed at least 18 of the 31 aid trucks. US intelligence officials believe Russian forces carried out that airstrike.

Those attacks have been the rule, not the exception. [Continue reading…]


How the White Helmets of Syria are being hunted in a devastated Aleppo

Jared Malsin reports: It should have been a banner month for the White Helmets. The acclaimed Syrian volunteer rescue group is the subject of a documentary that was released on Netflix on Sept. 16. The organization is up for the Nobel Peace Prize next month, and a raft of celebrities including George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake petitioned the prize committee in support of the group’s nomination. On Sept. 22, the White Helmets, who are known inside Syria as the Civil Defense, won the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “alternative Nobel,” honoring the volunteers for their bravery in rushing to the aid of Syrian civilians under relentless bombardment. The group claims to have rescued some 60,000 people since 2013.

But now, the White Helmets have become the targets of that bombing. In the besieged rebel-held section of the city of Aleppo, at least three of the group’s four operations centers were damaged by airstrikes in one night. Many of their vehicles were destroyed. A fire station was heavily damaged. Even the rescue center featured in the Netflix documentary was destroyed.

The bombing was the heaviest in months, part of of a new military offensive by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against the rebel enclave. “Right now people are crying from under the rubble in al-Mashhad, in al-Sukari, in Ansari. We couldn’t respond because we don’t have any vehicles,” says Ammar al-Selmo, a civil defense captain, referring to three eastern Aleppo neighborhoods during a phone interview on Friday. He said two of the four civil defense centers were put out of operation. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s failed legacy on child soldiers

Josh Rogin writes: President Obama will leave office having failed to use the tools at his disposal to make significant progress on getting child soldiers off the battlefield. That’s the consensus among human rights groups who point to the fact that for six consecutive years, the Obama administration has subverted U.S. law requiring the president to sanction foreign governments that force children to fight.

As early as this week, the administration will announce for the final time a list of waivers and exemptions to the Child Soldiers Protection Act, a law passed in 2008 that forbids the United States from giving military aid to any foreign government that systematically uses children in its armed forces. According to officials involved in the process, the president will either fully or partially waive sanctions for every abuser country that receives U.S. military assistance.

It’s a familiar pattern the president has followed each year since 2010, the first year he was required to sanction abuser countries under the law. The Obama administration has given more than $1.2 billion in military assistance and arms to governments that use child soldiers since the law was enacted and withheld only $61 million, according to the Stimson Center. The president’s final decision on waiving sanctions under the law is due Oct. 1. [Continue reading…]