GENEVA – Hospitals, health care workers and ambulances are increasingly targeted
in conflicts worldwide, depriving millions of sick and wounded people of
treatment, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on
The independent aid agency, which delivers supplies and
collects the wounded and dead from battlefields, called for a halt to deadly
assaults on medical facilities and personnel.
“Hospitals in Sri Lanka and
Somalia have been shelled, ambulances in Libya shot at, paramedics in Colombia
killed and wounded, people in Afghanistan forced to languish for hours in
vehicles held up at checkpoints,” Yves Daccord, ICRC director-general, told a
“People get used to it. Hospitals are attacked, doctors
are arrested and it now seems to be a normal part of armed conflict,” he
In a report entitled “Health Care in Danger: Making the Case,” the
ICRC documented 655 violent incidents between 2008 and the start of 2011 in 16
countries that disrupted delivery of health care, many of them deliberate
attacks violating international humanitarian law.
In all, 1,834 people
were killed or injured, including 159 health care workers in the attacks, which
the ICRC called “the tip of the iceberg.”
Some 128 medical personnel were
kidnapped and 32 ambulances were damaged, it said.
“They die because the
ambulance does not get there in time, because health personnel are prevented
from doing their work, because hospitals are themselves targets of attacks, or
simply because the environment is too dangerous for effective health care to be
delivered,” said Dr. Robin Coupland, a British war surgeon who led the ICRC
The violence, often accompanied by looting, means doctors and
nurses leave their jobs, hospitals run out of drugs or fuel to run generators,
and vaccination campaigns grind to a halt.
This leaves patients even more
vulnerable to diseases such as polio or cholera, which can break out in conflict
In Libya, a healthcare system that relied on foreign workers was
crippled when the war prompted an exodus, leaving hospitals in Misrata and
Benghazi critically understaffed.
Ajdabiyah hospital appears to have been
“used as cover for snipers.”
Under the Geneva Conventions, the wounded
and sick, whether civilians or combatants, must receive prompt medical
Yet many armies and rebels flout humanitarian law, according
to the ICRC, which has launched an awareness campaign.
“In conflicts all
over the world, combatants overlook their responsibility to care for civilians
caught in the crossfire,” it said, noting that relatives and neighbors bring
most civilian casualties to hospital.
The ICRC plans to help train
soldiers to speed inspections of ambulances at checkpoints.
take maybe five minutes to inspect an ambulance, not five hours. And you don’t
have to put dogs in the ambulances to run all over the patients, as we’ve seen,
to check for explosives,” Coupland said.
Hospitals have been used to
store weapons or launch attacks, including in the Palestinian territories, the
Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia have suffered some of the
worst attacks against medical centers and staff, the ICRC said.
Israel’s 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza, four starving Palestinian children were
found sitting near the bodies of their dead mothers, four days after shelling,
but Israeli forces prevented ambulances from reaching the victims, it
Somalia lost only the second batch of medical graduates in 20 years
when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a university ceremony in Mogadishu in
December 2009, killing 22.
The Taliban used an ambulance packed with
explosives last April to kill 12 people at a police training base, the ICRC
“In recent unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, protesters have been too
afraid to use medical facilities for fear their wounds will identify them and
provoke harsh reprisals,” it said.