Before the conflict began, Syria’s health care system was one of the most advanced in the Middle East with chronic diseases ranking as the most common health concern, vaccination coverage rates at 95%, and their pharmaceutical industry producing over 90% of the country’s medicines. Five years later, the conflict has nearly decimated the health care system and today nearly half of the country’s public hospitals and primary health care systems are closed or only partly functioning, almost two-thirds of health care workers have left the country, domestic production of medicines is down by two-thirds, and the vaccination coverage rate has dropped by half. Correspondingly, life expectancy has dropped by nearly 14 years.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Physicians for Human Rights has documented 382 attacks on 269 different medical facilities and 757 deaths of medical workers. The patterns of attacks clearly demonstrate that health care facilities and workers are being deliberately targeted. When health care workers are attacked, innocent civilians are deprived of the life-saving interventions needed for both routine and emergency care. In Aleppo alone, a health care facility is targeted every 17 hours and a health care worker every 60 hours. These alarming statistics make Aleppo one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a health care worker. APHA Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin noted the dire state of the Syrian health care system in a letter to the UN Security Council last December, but the situation has only worsened since then.
According to a recent report in September of this year, there were only 30 doctors serving the estimated 250,000 residents trapped in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. There are currently no more hospitals functioning at full capacity in eastern Aleppo. With the huge upswing of Syrian military activity these past few days, it is likely there are far less doctors or hospitals left. To make matters worse, humanitarian aid to eastern Aleppo has been severely restricted. Since humanitarian operations started over two years ago, the UN has conducted 420 convoys to deliver medical supplies and food to eastern Aleppo however as of late, they have not been able to make their deliveries. Health care cannot exist without health care workers, supplies, and facilities.
International humanitarian law and medical neutrality have been established to protect health care facilities and workers to ensure that they can continue to provide care during armed conflict and not be prosecuted for providing services to protesters or opposition fighters. But when health care facilities and workers are purposefully targeted and humanitarian aid is withheld, there is a clear violation of international humanitarian law that should be punished accordingly as a war crime. Though the violations in Syria are some of the most flagrant, these deliberate attacks on health care facilities and workers, used as a weapon of war, occur in many other parts of the world as well. In Yemen, over 600 health facilities have been targeted since fighting began in 2014. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has gone so far as to call attacks on health care facilities and workers during times of war as the new normal. Additionally, health workers in Bahrain were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and charged with crimes for caring for protesters and documenting police brutality in response to the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
Although news outlets and humanitarian organizations worldwide have brought a lot of attention to these tragedies, bringing awareness to these atrocities is not enough to stop it. It is the responsibility of the international community to help put an end to such blatant threats to human rights. The UN’s Responsibility to Protect gives permission to the international community to intervene and protect populations when a state fails to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities. However, the operationalization of this doctrine has proven to be disappointing. Although most actors in the international community agree that something should be done, they have been unable to agree on exactly what must be done. No-fly zones have been suggested and temporary ceasefires have been adopted to ensure delivery of humanitarian aid but both are merely stopgap measures. These are not enough to put a stop to such unnecessary human suffering and should not be the final solution.
As the war approaches its sixth year, the future of Aleppo looking bleak, and current estimates of the death toll in Syria surpassing 470,000, the need for for the international community to help put a permanent end to the war could not be more dire. However, given the international community’s long track record of ineffectual measures, it is unclear how they will proceed. One thing is for certain, it’s about time for the international community to ask themselves whether the decisions (or indecisions) they’ve made with Syria and other conflicts have been consistent with the principles of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Human lives are at stake and from a human rights standpoint, this should take precedence over any personal or state interests.