WHO: Emergency Health Workers, Facilities Intentionally Targeted: Attacks Injure 1,500 People over Two Years

By Krisberg, Kim | The Nation's Health, August 2016 | Go to article overview

WHO: Emergency Health Workers, Facilities Intentionally Targeted: Attacks Injure 1,500 People over Two Years


Krisberg, Kim, The Nation's Health


EARLIER THIS YEAR, Doctors Without Borders wanted to reopen a clinic in southern Syria that had been destroyed during bombings. In response, local residents came out to protest--with health facilities being intentionally attacked, they feared that a new clinic would make the community a target for more violence.

"This kind of bombing targets the last spaces of humanity in war," Marine Buissonniere, senior coordinator at Doctors Without Borders, told The Nation's Health. "Clearly, in certain areas, it's about making life impossible for people. When the medical infrastructure is destroyed and it's completely or partially out of service, it not only disrupts the emergency services people need most, it also destroys the routine services ... You're losing in the span of a few seconds what had made survival possible in areas where conflict had ravaged everything."

In the first few months of 2016 alone, Doctors Without Borders reported that 17 health facilities had been bombed in Syria, including six that the organization supported. Buissonniere said that across conflict zones in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and South Sudan, health and hospital facilities are being "targeted at an alarming rate." But with such little historical data on attacks against health care in emergencies, Buissonniere refrained from saying whether that "alarming rate" represents a trend on the rise or whether it reflects a dismal status quo. In fact, no one can say for sure whether violations of medical neutrality in conflict --a breach of international law, regardless--are going up or down because until just recently, few attempts had been made to collect comprehensive data.

The World Health Organization recently published a report detailing findings from its first project to consolidate and analyze data on attacks on health care during emergencies. Released in May and based on data gathered between January 2014 and December 2015, WHO's "Attacks on Health Care" reported 594 attacks on health care that resulted in 959 deaths and 1,561 injuries in 19 countries experiencing emergencies. According to the report, more than half of the attacks were against health care facilities and another quarter were against health care workers. In 62 percent of the attacks, health facilities and workers were intentionally targeted, WHO found. By far, Syria was home to the most attacks on health care in emergencies--during the two-year study period, WHO reported 228 such attacks in Syria. The West Bank and Gaza Strip came in second, with 53 health care attacks in 2014-2015.

The WHO report is based on data from a number of open sources, including the Aid Worker Security Database, the Council on Foreign Relations and Physicians for Human Rights. And while such organizations have historically gathered data on health care attacks during emergencies, the WHO effort is a new attempt to standardize such reporting and consolidate the information into a single publicly available source. The WHO effort followed a landmark resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2014 that for the first time recognized the severity of attacks on health workers, facilities and patients; called on states to abide by humanitarian law; and singled out WHO's critical role in gathering related data.

"It's not just understanding the number of attacks," said APHA member Leonard Rubenstein, JD, LLM, director of the program on human rights, health and conflict at the Center for Public Health and Human Rights within the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "In this realm, context is crucially important --what's happening in Syria is different than what's happening in Yemen, which is different than South Sudan and the West Bank. We're still at a very primitive stage of understanding the dynamics and motivations behind these attacks. …

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