Bombing medical facilities: is this the new normal?

MARTIN SLOOT | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on February 05, 2016

In Afghanistan and Yemen, such incidents are just technical failures or human errors

In four months, four Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), hospitals have been bombed in Yemen and Afghanistan. Hospitals which were providing life-saving medical care to those affected by armed conflict have been destroyed, leaving entire populations without an alternative

The first bombing occurred on October 3, 2015, on MSF’s trauma centre in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The hospital was bombed in a targeted manner for over an hour, killing 42 people and critically injuring several others. The attack was termed a “mistake” and attributed to “technical failure”.


In Yemen, fighter jets from the Saudi-led coalition repeatedly bombed a hospital in Haydan district, Saada Province, on October 26. An MSF mobile clinic was then hit by an air strike on December 2 in Taiz’s Al Houban district, wounding eight people, including two MSF staff, and killing one person. On January 10, the MSF-supported Shiara hospital in Northern Yemen came under attack in an incident that killed six people and injured at least seven, most of them medical staff and patients. This time, we heard that there were no “deliberate” breaches of international humanitarian law.

Geneva Conventions violated

Altogether 130 health facilities have come under attack in Yemen since the conflict began last March. These are a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which govern the rules of war and were established to protect civilians, including patients, medical workers and facilities.

What is also distressing for MSF is these attacks have left highly vulnerable populations without access to healthcare when the need is most urgent. People are more afraid than ever. They cannot access vital services either because the facilities have been destroyed or because it is too dangerous to operate them. Many facilities have also been closed due to the lack of petrol and drugs.

Since the attack on the Shiara hospital, there have been no deliveries in the maternity room — pregnant women are giving birth in caves rather than risk coming to the hospital. It has reached a point where we, as humanitarian workers, are now asking ourselves if this is the “new normal” — where an MSF hospital is bombed every month; where hospitals, schools and markets (all places where civilians congregate) are bombed indiscriminately and routinely?

As an organisation that strives to provide life-saving medical assistance in some of the world’s toughest and bloodiest wars, we cannot accept this “new normal”. The explanations of technical failure or human error being offered by some of the world’s strongest militaries are aimed at normalising these incidents in people’s minds. This position is simply unacceptable. As caregivers whose sole aim is to provide neutral medical assistance to those who need it, we refuse to accept this trend of indiscriminate bombing of medical facilities, accompanied by a lack of accountability.

Independent probe sought

MSF has requested the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) to conduct an independent investigation into the Shiara hospital attack. MSF first turned to the commission after the bombing of its trauma hospital in Kunduz by the US army in Afghanistan.

The IHFFC is the only permanent international fact-finding body with a specific mandate to investigate potential violations of international humanitarian law under the Geneva Convention. While the US and Afghan governments are yet to sign and accept this independent investigation, MSF is also waiting to access the full details of the US military investigation.

We continue to call upon all countries involved in the war to respect their commitment to the international humanitarian law. We urgently need guarantees from warring parties that functioning hospitals are never a legitimate target.

(The writer is General Director, MSF India. Views expressed are personal.)

Published on February 05, 2016
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