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Intentionally targeting civilians violates international law, UN says

The aftermath of a government airstrike on the

The aftermath of a government airstrike on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. The UN Security Council on Thursday debated a new report saying that combatants in most of the world's military conflicts last year often struck civilian and nonmilitary targets. Credit: AP / Muhammed Muheisen

UNITED NATIONS — Combatants in most of the world’s military conflicts last year — including Syria, Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Iraq — all too often struck civilians and nonmilitary targets such as schools and medical facilities with deadly consequences, said a report released this week by the United Nations that was the subject of debate Thursday in the Security Council.

To intentionally target civilians or health facilities is a clear violation of international law, said several ambassadors, human rights advocates and the top UN official.

“Cities like Aleppo, Juba and Mosul have become death traps, while the destruction of housing, schools, markets, hospitals and vital infrastructure will affect generations to come,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, opening the hourslong debate on the report, “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict”.

Guterres said the Security Council should demand combatants show greater respect for international law, increase protection of humanitarian and medical missions, and prevent the creation of refugees and internally displaced people.

“Attacks on hospitals and medical staff, and the removal of medical supplies from humanitarian convoys, are symptoms of a continued grave disregard for international law and the protection of civilians,” he said. Conflicts have become so brutal that, globally, 65 million people have left their homes to become refugees or internally displaced people, he added.

A report released Monday by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center in Geneva and the Norwegian Refugee Council said 31.1 million people were internally displaced in 2016 alone, 6.9 million of them routed from their homes due to violence.

Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for advocacy, Bruno Stagno-Ugarte and the International Committee of the Red Cross Vice President Christine Beerli noted that the UN Security Council last year passed a resolution condemning attacks on medical facilities in particular, a reaction to a spike in attacks on hospitals in Syria and other places.

ICRC president Peter Maurer said at the time there had been 2,400 targeted attacks against patients and health care workers, and transport and centers in 11 countries over the previous three years.

“There is little doubt that trends are getting worse when it comes to the protection of civilians,” said Michele Sison, deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN.

“Parties to conflicts are using despicable tactics. Starving entire cities until they surrender. Deliberately bombing hospitals — sometimes the same hospital — over and over. Raping and torturing civilians who are trying to flee.”

Some speakers called these deliberate attacks — which strike the wounded and sick and their medical caretakers — war crimes.

Rodolfo Nin Novoa, foreign minister of Uruguay, who chaired the debate, said perpetrators should be brought to justice using any number of instruments of international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute that could allow responsible parties to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court.

“According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, attacking hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are located is a war crime,” he said, as his remarks generated applause in the normally reserved chamber.

Sison and others called on the Security Council to do more.

“Finally, this council needs to take action when violations occur,” said Matthew Rycroft, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the UN. “When states fail to act, it’s our responsibility to decide that these abuses will not be tolerated, that we will hold those responsible accountable.”

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