Attacks on medical facilities in conflicts over the past two years have killed nearly 1,000 people worldwide, the World Health Organization said in a report Thursday.
The report stressed that such attacks represent an utter violation of humanitarian norms.
The report highlighted an alarming disrespect for the protection of health care in wars by governments and armed groups, which has earned fierce condemnation from human rights groups and doctors.
“This is a huge problem. Attacks on health workers are not isolated, they are not accidental and they are not stopping,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, the head of emergency response at WHO.
He told reporters in Geneva that often governments or combatants pay lip service to trying to end attacks on health facilities, with no follow-through.
“We hear everywhere, ‘this is unacceptable, attacks on health workers.’ When things are unacceptable, you see a movement on the part of states, on the part of governments, on the part of parties involved to stop these, to hold people accountable. We have not seen that the way we need it if this is to be addressed,” he said.
The study by the Geneva-based WHO, the agency’s most wide-ranging study of such attacks around the globe, detailed 594 attacks on hospitals and clinics in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in 2014 and 2015, which have left 959 medics, support staff, patients and visitors dead and over 1500 injured.
Most disturbingly, the report states that over 60 percent of the attacks deliberately targeted medical facilities, while 20 percent were accidental and the rest were undetermined. Over 50 percent of the attacks were perpetrated by governments; one-third by non-state armed groups and the rest were unknown.
“We witness with alarming frequency a lack of respect for the sanctity of health care, for the right to health care and for international humanitarian law,” the report said. “Patients are shot in their hospitals beds, medical personnel are threatened, intimidated or attacked, hospitals are bombed.”
According to the Geneva Conventions, targeting hospitals, doctors and patients constitutes a war crime. The U.N. Security Council has denounced the attacks and demanded that all parties in conflicts protect medical facilities, but some of the Council’s most powerful members have themselves been associated with these crimes.
U.S. forces struck a clinic in Afghanistan last year, killing 42 people, in what the Pentagon said was a mistake caused by human error. Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Russian forces that back him have been accused of deliberately striking hospitals to make life in opposition-held areas unlivable.
“It’s an absolutely devastating breakdown of this long-held norm — protection and respect of health care,” said Susannah Sirkin, a director at the New York-based Physician for Human Rights.
In its report, WHO said it was important to continue documenting the attacks and the health effects they have on the communities where they are perpetrated. The agency also called for advocacy work on the international as well as local level to prevent such crimes.
“We must ensure that health care is provided universally during emergencies to all those who need it, in safety, unhindered by violence or obstruction,” the report said.