Heather Culbert is president of MSF Canada; Stephen Cornish is MSF Canada’s executive director.
A year ago, on the night of Oct. 3, 2015, a U.S. warplane attacked a compound in Kunduz, Afghanistan, a city that had recently become a battleground between Taliban rebels and U.S.-supported government forces. The plane fired multiple missiles at its target, destroying the building and killing 42 of the people trapped inside.
The object was not a Taliban base, but rather a hospital – a facility operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and the people killed were doctors, nurses, patients and caregivers. Some were there because they needed medical attention, others were there to provide it; all became caught up in hellfire, with many incinerated in their hospital beds or shot from above as they fled.
The events that night in Kunduz were both a shock and a turning point. That the U.S. military would violate one of the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law by attacking civilians in a medical facility was appalling. But it was also just the beginning. In the 12 months since, violent attacks on civilians and medical facilities in war zones have reached unprecedented and unconscionable levels.
More civilians have been killed by military forces in the past six months than in the entire year prior. In Taiz, Yemen – where there is an ongoing civil war between forces backed by foreign powers including Iran, the U.S., the U.K. and Saudi Arabia – more than half of the patients treated by MSF for war wounds have been civilians. In Syria, warring parties bomb a hospital – and then bomb it again when emergency personnel arrive, to maximize trauma. In July, 43 hospitals in Syria were attacked, more than one a day.
Whether due to direct targeting, collateral damage or even simple negligence, these horrific incidents amount to collective punishment of civilians caught up in conflict. Flagrant violations of international humanitarian law seem now to form part of a careless, if not considered, routine military strategy. This is being further normalized by hypocrisy from world leaders, who lament the loss of life in public while failing to use their power to stop the continuing attacks.
Next week’s one-year anniversary of the Kunduz tragedy also marks the five-month anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2286, which calls for greater protection of civilians, medical facilities and personnel in war zones.
Instead of seeing a decrease in atrocities since the resolution was unanimously passed in May, there has been relentless continuation, especially in Syria and Yemen, where four of the five permanent members of the Security Council are actively involved.
These five permanent members bear special responsibility for this deplorable trend. They have either violated the rules of war themselves, or have allowed their allies and proxies to do so without consequence. Perhaps if their leaders, who pay lip service to humanitarian law while failing to uphold it, were to see first-hand the blood and destruction left when a hospital, school or marketplace is bombed, they would show the courage and conviction to hold those who violate the rules of war to account.
On Sept. 28, the Security Council met to discuss recommendations for enforcing Resolution 2286. It was a necessary recognition that the very possibility of humanitarian action – of delivering medical care in conflict zones, of protecting the most vulnerable from war’s devastation, of acknowledging the existence of the rules of war – is under threat. The UN
Secretary-General put forward recommendations to enhance the protection laid out in Resolution 2286, including one to ensure that those who violate international law relating to the protection of medical care in armed conflict are held accountable.
These recommendations, and the Secretary-General’s calls to defend humanitarian law, are welcome. But we have had promises and fine statements before. The real test will be whether they will finally be matched with facts on the ground. If those who gathered at the Security Council are now willing to follow up their words and gestures with real action, then the Kunduz attack may be remembered as an isolated tragedy rather than a lamentable turning point.
We have the power to stop the killing if we choose, if we hold our leaders to account.
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