January 20, 2016

This article was originally published in the Guardian.

Three hospitals and clinics where doctors and nurses working for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were providing essential medical services to people caught up in the horrendous conflict in Yemen have come under attack in as many months. And this figure does not include attacks on MSF-supported health facilities in other conflict zones.

The bloodiest of these attacks was in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in October. Forty-two people were killed when the US military destroyed MSF’s fully functioning trauma centre. The US version of events was that the attack was a mistake. This was followed by an apology from the commander-in-chief of what is allegedly the most sophisticated military machine on the planet. This leaves us with more questions than answers and, months later, we are still waiting for access to the full details of the US military investigation.

On January 10 in Razeh, northern Yemen, when another hospital came under attack, six people were killed and seven others wounded. It is still not clear who was responsible for this specific attack, but the Saudi-led coalition, supported by the British military, has been bombing hospitals across Yemen for the past 10 months. 

On Tuesday, the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, addressed the House of Commons and claimed that there had been no "deliberate" breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Hammond based this assertion on feedback from British military personnel who are helping Saudi Arabia identify targets in Yemen’s war.

I will not comment on the efficiency of the UK’s military technical support in hitting the right targets, or ask why—with the benefit of such support—hospitals, schools, markets, and all sorts of places where civilians congregate are still routinely being bombed in Yemen. 

But I will highlight two reasons why I find these claims offensive and irresponsible.

First, because Hammond’s implication is that bombing a hospital in error is an acceptable consequence of war. After suffering three attacks in Yemen in as many months, this is a position we simply cannot accept. If these attacks were intentional, they deserve our outrage. If three attacks in three months were the result of errors, it is just as outrageous. 

Secondly, there is a risk that "errors" in war situations will become normalised—just as "collateral damage" has been normalised in people’s minds since the first Gulf War. This would provide the perfect alibi for armies to shrug off accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It perpetuates impunity.

Today, as you read this, sophisticated military weapons are being—purposely or mistakenly—aimed at hospitals and clinics. With total impunity, essential medical services are being destroyed as a military strategy, both by national armies and by international coalitions, in Afghanistan, in Syria, and in Yemen. And ultimately the people that this hurts the most are patients who no longer have access to healthcare. 

Dozens of health facilities have come under attack in Yemen and Syria in the past four months. This cannot become the new normal. This cannot become an acceptable trend to which the world resigns itself. Please join us in our indignation and ask your leaders to stop bombing hospitals. For armies, too, the protection of civilians should be a high priority, not just to avoid legal prosecution, but because no one should be indifferent to the loss of human life.

MSF formally calls on the UK government to reaffirm its unequivocal commitment to international humanitarian law and to uphold it in any coalition it supports. We also call on the UK government to support investigations into possible breaches of international humanitarian law in Yemen and beyond and to make the results of such investigations public.

Vickie Hawkins is executive director of MSF-UK.

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