The last known pediatrician left in rebel-held Aleppo was killed in an airstrike recently
Actor Javier Bardem says world leaders must show backbone in protecting healthcare workers in warzones
Editor’s note: Javier Bardem is an Oscar-winning actor who is collaborating with MSF and Medics Under Fire, a new organization that aims to reinstate protections for medical workers in conflict zones. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
The grainy, stuttering CCTV images are haunting. Dr Mohammed Maaz, the last pediatrician working in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, diligently going about his work, in the face of unimaginable pressure. The footage is then engulfed by a cloud of dust and debris, as the Al Quds hospital is hit by an airstrike. At least 50 died, 60 more were injured. Dr Maaz perished along with his colleagues and patients.
Dr. Maaz was the last known pediatrician left in rebel-held Aleppo. The children of that city are now left more vulnerable than ever before. It is lamentable that in Syria, the World Health Organisation reports that 57% of public hospitals and 51% of public health clinics have been closed. There are now only 25 doctors left in Aleppo, where once there were 5,000.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Dr Maaz endured horrors most of us cannot even imagine. Yet his job was to treat injured and dying children and he continued to do so despite the risks. All the while his colleagues in the medical profession around him fell to the indiscriminate nature of this war, where hospitals, medical professionals and patients are as much targets as armed soldiers.
In today’s Syria, an ambulance or hospital may as well be a tank or barracks. Healthcare workers and facilities in Syria are seen as fair game in a cruel battle for territory and influence.
And it is not just in Syria. The frequency of attacks on medical workers is on the rise in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen. That is why last week the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted the first-ever resolution demanding that all parties to armed conflicts protect staff and facilities in their obligations to treat the sick and wounded.
That is also why Medics Under Fire, a new Campaign Group that aims to bring together NGOs, donors, medical organizations and governments is here to push for accountability for these crimes, and enshrine and protect medical workers in conflict zones.
That the fundamental right to protect healthcare workers in conflict zones needs to be reasserted is a depressing development. When it comes to the protection of medical workers in war zones, we have failed in assuring their safety. They are the ones that bring life and hope to the victims of any armed conflict.
The U.N. resolution is a start in redressing this. But it is only the beginning. It calls on countries to take steps to prevent attacks on health facilities and health workers, reform their domestic laws to strengthen protection, train their militaries and security forces in the requirements of international law, collect data on attacks and hold perpetrators accountable.
But there must be renewed commitment and leadership from the United States, UK and its main allies to not only cement these principles, but also hold perpetrators accountable.
The Syrian war, perhaps like no other before it, has ushered in a profoundly disturbing new trend where international law is not only circumvented, but wilfully ignored.
So far, efforts to bring perpetrators in Syria to justice through the International Criminal Court have been blocked at the U.N. If referrals of crimes committed in Syria against health workers and others continue to be vetoed, we must find a complementary international criminal process with a strong global backing.
The international community must also establish independent investigations and fact finding missions now, so violations of these protections are alleged and documented.
Nor should the scope of these international investigations ignore the recent behavior of western nations and their international arms companies. There is clear evidence not only of contraventions by U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq, but also Western-supplied warplanes, drones and ordinance causing unthinkable horrors in Yemen and elsewhere.
Here, of course, we have a problem. The United States refuses to become a member state of the International Criminal Court. This undermines their claim as the “global mediator of order.” It also damages the wider cause of international justice.
The capacity to fulfil the commitment to protect healthcare workers from this sanctioned killing will require backbone from our world leaders. But it must happen. Otherwise the final hopes of thousands of innocent people in conflict zones, and those that treat them, will die as well.