We Must Make Targeting Hospitals Unacceptable Again. Start With Syria | Opinion

As the UN marked its 75th birthday under the cloud of a global pandemic, nearly every head of state mentioned the fight against COVID-19. But no world leader raised the scourge of attacks on healthcare which continue with impunity and hamper the global response to the pandemic. And nowhere is this more urgent than in northwest Syria, where attacks on healthcare have been systematic. The World Health Organization estimates that 50 percent of the 550 health facilities in Syria have been damaged, destroyed or closed due to conflict– even if attacks on health facilities are strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law.

According to the United Nations, 70 percent of healthcare workers have fled the country. There is now only 1 Syrian doctor per 10,000 Syrian civilians. Those healthcare workers that remain lack the basic tools to protect themselves. Health workers comprise 15 percent of all confirmed COVID cases in northeast Syria; in the northwest it's 35 percent. There is not enough testing to diagnose the scale of the virus' spread. In northwest Syria only one laboratory is operating and there are only 86 ventilators and just over 100 ICU beds for the over 4 million people living in northwest Syria. Even as these healthcare workers toil without the necessary resources, they do so not only in fear of the virus but of air strikes resuming as a fragile and temporary ceasefire hangs in the balance. Efforts to fight the virus against this dire backdrop can only be doomed to fail. The fact that cases have increased 1000 percent in northwest Syria in September alone makes for a dire warning.

Despite the severity of the situation in Syria, the United Nations has, however, refused to make good on its promises for accountability for attacks on healthcare. Six months ago, there was a glimmer of hope for humanitarian organizations like our own, the International Rescue Committee, when the UN Secretary General announced the findings of a Syria Board of Inquiry (BOI) investigation into attacks on humanitarian operations, including hospitals and healthcare facilities. The report was limited in scope but nonetheless found that it was highly probably that the Government of Syria, and its allies, had carried out airstrikes on health facilities – even though these facilities had been "deconflicted," their coordinates shared, via a UN mechanism, with warring parties to avoid deliberate or accidental attack.

Six months on, the findings of the report remain private—and no steps have been taken to devise solutions going forward, despite promises from the Secretary General. In fact, the Secretary General has gone silent on the topic, not even including the Board of Inquiry among a list of accountability measures in his annual Protection of Civilians report to the UN Security Council.

Security Council members have also abandoned their calls for the Board's recommendations to be taken forward. And in a deeply troubling and cynical move, Russia quietly announced in June that it will no longer participate in the UN deconfliction mechanism for Syria. This news that a permanent member of the UN Security Council and party to the conflict had withdrawn from the UN-sponsored process meant to protect healthcare and humanitarian operations passed with barely a headline – and without any follow-up within the Security Council, let alone censure from fellow Council members or the UN writ large. Vladimir Putin's address to the UN last week lacked any mention of accountability for attacks on hospitals in Syria. Instead, in his video message, Putin used the UN's 75th anniversary to reinforce the importance of the Security Council veto – something Russia has wielded an astonishing 16 times to stymie accountability efforts and constrict humanitarian access in Syria—most recently to narrow humanitarian access to the northwest of the country all amidst growing health and humanitarian needs due to COVID-19.

A UN report on attacks on hospitals and healthcare workers should never be relegated to a box-checking exercise – and to do so during a global pandemic is shockingly irresponsible. The Security Council's resolutions on protection of civilians, including healthcare workers, have been ignored for far too long. The International Community should take three steps now: first, in order to be credible, the UN Secretary General should immediately implement recommendations in the Syria Board of Inquiry report, most critically the appointment of a Senior Advisor as was promised six months ago. Second, the UN should also appoint a permanent body to speak out about attacks on healthcare, investigate and preserve evidence from its inquiries. Finally, UN Security Council members should ensure that every attack on a healthcare facility or worker is discussed openly at the Security Council, as part of monthly Council briefings and country-specific briefings. Explicit calls for the protection of health workers should be included in UN resolutions and official discussions including those related to COVID-19.

The international community has been failing Syrian healthcare workers for nearly a decade. COVID-19—a deadly virus that respects no borders—should be a stark reminder that it is in all our interests to ensure healthcare workers and facilities are protected. We should demand meaningful steps to prevent attacks on health facilities and hold those responsible to account. This should be a top priority for the next 25 years. We cannot defeat COVID-19 or any outbreak that follows as long as bombs continue to drop, and targets continue to be set, on healthcare workers and healthcare facilities anywhere.

Kelly Razzouk and Amanda Catanzano are Senior Directors for Policy and Advocacy at the IRC.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

We Must Make Targeting Hospitals Unacceptable Again. Start With Syria | Opinion | Opinion