Physicians for Human Rights Briefing to the United Nations Security Council on Attacks on Health Facilities and Personnel in Syria


Physician for Human Right’s director of policy, Susannah Sirkin, addressed the UN Security Council on July 30, 2019, demanding that the Secretary-General launch an immediate investigation into recent attacks on health care in Idlib and northwestern Syria in violation of protection agreements. Sirkin is a member of our Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition's Steering Committee and PHR is a longtime coalition member. Read her remarks below.

Good morning, Mr. President, and thank you for the opportunity to address the Council regarding attacks on health facilities and personnel, and their impact on civilians in Syria.

Undersecretary-General Lowcock just provided insight into the horrific humanitarian crisis taking place in northwest Syria as we speak here today.

My name is Susannah Sirkin and I am the Director of Policy at Physicians for Human Rights, which is an international non-governmental organization that brings the expertise of science and medicine to the defense of human rights. Our researchers at PHR have been rigorously corroborating, documenting, and reporting on violations in the Syrian conflict for the past eight years.

Footage courtesy of UN video library

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the ongoing assault on health care facilities and personnel has been a defining factor – and a deliberate, inhumane, illegal strategy of war. When hospitals are destroyed, the loss is far greater than the buildings. When medical workers are killed, the human toll is not just their lives, but also the exponential number of people who suffer and die without medical treatment.

Our years of meticulously gathered documentation lay bare the blatant disregard for civilian life in the Syria conflict, as revealed in the Syrian government’s repeated attacks since 2011 on health facilities and personnel. The numbers I am about to share with you are an undercounting because we apply a conservative methodology.

• From March 2011 through July 2019, PHR corroborated 578 attacks on at least 350 separate facilities and we documented the killing of 890 medical personnel.

• 521 attacks – 91 percent – were perpetrated by the Syrian government and allied forces (297 by Syrian government forces and 224 by either Russian or Syrian government forces).

Each of the attacks on a functioning health facility is a war crime. Taken together, these assaults constitute crimes against humanity. The widespread and systematic destruction of health facilities and the killing of hundreds of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and paramedics by Syria and its Russian allies has the apparent aim to “break people’s spirits,” as one Syrian doctor put it in the powerful new documentary For Sama.

This repeated tactic of terror turns places of safety and life into danger zones and death traps.

For years, the UN Secretary-General has routinely shared these data with the Security Council. They have been publicized to the world again and again. Yet, appallingly, these crimes continue to be committed with utter impunity.

In Aleppo, PHR has documented 161 attacks on health facilities, with 54 in the year 2016 alone. Hospital attacks then by Syria with its Russian allies forced tens of thousands of civilians into flight, and literally killed patients who were stripped of life-saving care.

And now, three years later, the world is watching, silently, the same escalation of brutality in Idlib and northwestern Syria that could result in the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.

On the 29th of April this year, the Syrian government and Russia started their military escalation targeting Idlib and northern Hama. Since then, PHR has received reports of 46 attacks on health care facilities; so far, using PHR’s rigorous methodology, we have confirmed 16 of them and are still counting.

OCHA has estimated that between May and July 15, the number of newly internally displaced people who are trapped in this so-called demilitarized area has reached 500,000, bringing the total to at least 1.3 million. Many of the families now in Idlib have already been displaced four, five, or more times throughout the relentless waves of violence in the Syrian conflict. People in Idlib have nowhere else to go.

Many of the health facilities in this area have been forced out of service. But shockingly, we see that agreements coordinated by the UN to notify all parties of the locations of health facilities, intended as a strategy to protect them, have been violated again and again.

The Syrian and Russian governments know the exact location of most health facilities, and yet they continue targeting them. The courageous remaining medical workers are providing life-saving care while being bombed, and doctors tell us that hospitals, which should be the safest places in Idlib, are the exact opposite. They are targets.

At least 14 facilities have been hit, according to SAMS (Syrian American Medical Society), in spite of having shared their coordinates with belligerents through OCHA’s so-called de-confliction mechanism. PHR has documented attacks on the Saraqeb Primary Healthcare Center and the Ma’aret al-Nouman Central Hospital, both on July 10. And they had shared their coordinates. Three surgical units were attacked on the same day early in May. And the list goes on.

In 2016 when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2286 on protecting health in conflict, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated: “When so-called surgical strikes are hitting surgical wards, something is deeply wrong. Even wars have rules. The Council and member states must do more than condemn such attacks,” he added. “They must use every ounce of influence to press parties to respect their obligations.”

Your current collective inaction is a clear derogation of your responsibility to protect.

Governments failed to heed all the warnings of this criminal strategy of war, which has devastated all manner of infrastructure, community, and culture. Civilians in Syria have been let down by the Security Council’s failure to act, by individual governments who were in positions to stop the carnage, and sadly, by UN agencies hamstrung by rules that have enabled the perpetrators to flout the most basic humanitarian agreements with zero consequence.

We are calling on Syria and Russia to immediately stop attacks on hospitals and other vital civilian infrastructure. And we are calling on all parties to the conflict to cease violence against civilians.

We are urging the UN Secretary-General to launch an immediate investigation into attacks on health facilities and personnel in Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo, and on the failure of the deconfliction mechanism. All parties must cooperate fully and ensure unimpeded access to investigators.

To all governments, everyone in this room, and to people of conscience everywhere: We are calling on you to do everything in your power to end the slaughter and to protect the civilians cornered in Syria. The continued failure of the UN Security Council to end impunity for these crimes is a blight on the credibility of this body to carry out its core mandate. Continued inaction sends a message of abandonment and erosion of humanitarian law not only to those in Syria, but to all people subjected to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you today. I’d like to add that we at Physicians for Human Rights offer a special tribute to Syrian health professionals, to those still alive and providing care under fire, to those who were forced to flee, and to all those who gave up their lives for their bravery and commitment to save lives.