Last week, Médecins Sans Frontièrs (MSF), published a photo essay on the effects Yemen’s civil war is having on healthcare services. Its central message is that health services have severely deteriorated and civilians are suffering.
Militarily targeting medical facilities is a violation of international humanitarian law, and is a war crime. Not everyone plays by the rules, however.
Despite having the GPS coordinates for an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, U.S. forces severely damaged the facility in 2015. As a result of the strike, forty-two people were killed, including twenty-four patients. The Pentagon has stopped short of calling the event a war crime, attributing it to “unintentional human error and equipment failure,” and has taken disciplinary action against those responsible.
There have been similar incidents in Taiz, Yemen. The health system there is in shambles, as a result of Saudi-led coalition strikes against various hospitals, coupled with scarce medical personnel and supplies. The situation has particularly affected vulnerable groups, like children and pregnant women.
When medical facilities are targeted, public health is adversely affected, not only because hospitals are destroyed, but also because civilians are deterred from seeking medical care. As reported by MSF, one emergency room supervisor in Taiz observed that “People needing care have only two options: Stay in their houses and bleed to death, or take the risk and come to the hospital to save their lives. They don’t feel safe.”
War adversely affects health in other ways. When warring parties target power plants, which is a war crime, the energy outage disrupts water supplies and wastewater treatment systems. As a result, citizens lose access to drinking water and sewage begins to accumulate.
Because of electrical outages during Syria’s conflict, civilians in that country have experienced regular disruptions to their water and wastewater services. The seriousness of the situation prompted the UN to issue warnings about the increased likelihood of water-borne diseases.
With global backlash rising against refugees, more and more civilians will be trapped in war zones. Those prosecuting these wars have an even greater responsibility, as such, to protect the lives of those caught in the crosshairs.