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Aleppo's hospitals are not a target

Attacks on hospitals are attacks on humanity. Here's what the law says.

Thursday November 17, 2016

Hospitals damaged in Aleppo
The remnants of a hospital in Aleppo. Image courtesy ICRC.

Four hospitals in Aleppo were attacked this week. Two of these hospitals were supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross.  

Ansar Hospital in rural Aleppo provided medical care for 5,000 people every month: new mothers, people wounded in combat, children and the elderly. Atarib City Hospital supported thousands more. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that the few hospitals remaining in Aleppo are stretched beyond imagination. Doctors and nurses are exhausted and afraid for their lives.  

Too often, hospitals are either the deliberate targets of attack or the collateral damage of indiscriminate attacks in times of conflict. Every time one is attacked, thousands of people are deprived of essential, life-saving care.

What do the laws of war say?

  • Civilians, as well as wounded and sick fighters who are playing no part in the conflict, are protected and must not be the object of attacks.
  • Fighters must limit attacks to only those people and objects whose destruction or neutralisation offers a concrete and direct military advantage.  
  • Hospitals are the subject of special protection under the Geneva Conventions.  
  • If a hospital is destroyed in an attack against a military target, it will be unlawful unless the military advantage gained can be reasonably justified as proportionate against the humanitarian impacts caused by the destruction of the hospital.
  • A hospital can lose its protection if it is used for purposes which are harmful to the enemy, and which fall outside its humanitarian function.
  • These may include:
    • a military unit installing a firing position in a hospital
    • use of a hospital as a shelter for able bodied combatants,
    • use of a hospital as an ammunition supply dump.   
  • It is important to remember that acts causing loss of protection must be BOTH harmful to the enemy, AND outside the hospital's humanitarian function. 
  • Acts which may be harmful to the enemy but which fall within a hospital's humanitarian function do not result in loss of protection. These may include:
    • treating wounded enemy civilians or fighters (hospitals are obliged to offer treatment to all on the basis of need)
    • protection of the hospital by an armed guard for the purpose of self-defence
    • storing small arms and ammunition that has been confiscated from wounded personnel.   
  • Even if a hospital may have committed harmful acts outside their humanitarian function, there are safeguards to protect patients and staff. A warning must be provided, reasonable time must be given to comply, and protection will only cease if the warning remains unheeded.  


Learn more about health care and why it must be protected.  

How to help:
Your donation to our Syria Crisis Appeal can help families with healthcare, water, shelter and other essentials