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Kunduz bombing is an attack on humanitarian action


Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope on why the bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Afghanistan is a matter of grave international concern.

Monday October 12, 2015

Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope
Photo: Australian Red Cross/Anna Warr

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12-10-15

The bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, has even broader consequences than the tragic and unnecessary deaths it caused. It is a strike not only at the laws of war, but the heart of humanitarian action itself.    

The laws of armed conflict recognise that even wars have limits; and the most critical of these limits is to protect those who are not part of the fight. The wounded - regardless of which side they may have been on - must be treated impartially. Medical facilities and workers are expressly protected and cannot be targeted under any circumstances.  

This is why the Kunduz hospital bombing is a matter of grave international concern. Patients burned in their beds, while doctors and nurses perished alongside them.  

When medical personnel are harmed and facilities destroyed, the entire basis for humanitarian action is threatened.  

International humanitarian law is founded on the recognition of a common humanity. The clearest expression of humanity in armed conflict is access to medical care for the wounded, sick and dying - provided by neutral, impartial caregivers.  

The bombing in Kunduz is not an aberration. It is part of a trend that has to stop.  

Last month, two staff members of the International Committee of the Red Cross were shot and killed in Yemen. In July, a Yemeni Red Crescent ambulance was fired upon, killing a patient on board. March 2015 saw a wave of attacks perpetrated against our people: including a Red Crescent volunteer killed in Syria and another in Yemen, while coming to the aid of those wounded by fighting. In the three years until December 2014, ICRC data shows that 4,200 health care workers have been killed or shot, beaten, tortured or otherwise harmed while doing their work.   

The consequences of each attack on health care go beyond the carnage they cause. If medical missions are not adequately protected, the risks may be too great to continue. Organisations may withdraw their staff from conflict zones if they cannot trust in the laws of war to protect them. Health care professionals may be less likely to take on humanitarian work - and their families left more anxious every time they go on mission.  

The resulting unavailability of medical care means that hundreds or thousands more people will die. Mothers in labour. Wounded combatants and civilians. Children killed by vaccine-preventable illnesses.  

Humanitarian assistance is mandated in law. States have obligations to investigate certain serious breaches of international humanitarian law and these investigations must remain impartial. The international community must clarify the facts of the Kunduz bombing and act to keep such incidents from happening yet again.  

Humanitarian agencies must continue our efforts to disseminate the laws of war. All parties to a conflict must understand that even wars have limits, and what these limits are. Safe zones must be maintained around hospitals and the sick and wounded must have access to medical care.  

We grieve with our friends at MSF and the families of all those killed in the Kunduz bombing. We share not only their outrage at this incident, but their determination to keep providing health care in the heart of conflict and disaster - where people need us most.  

Dr Phoebe Wynn-Pope is Director of International Humanitarian Law and Movement Relations, Australian Red Cross

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