Bombing hospitals: War crimes and the end of IHL protection

This seminar was hosted by the NCHS and the University of Oslo (UiO) to discuss trends in attacks against health facilities and health personnel.

The post-9/11 environment and the politics of the “global war on terror” reshaped the operating environment and augmented the risks for individual aid workers and aid agencies. Nevertheless, the high number of aerial or shelling attacks that has struck health facilities in war zones in 2015 and 2016 indicate that a new form of threat to aid workers and civilians has emerged in the form of deliberate attacks against medical facilities and medical convoys.

While American, Russian, Saudi, and Syrian authorities (and others) explain or acknowledge their responsibility for these attacks in very different ways, international humanitarian law (IHL) appears to play a marginal role as events unfold. While MSF, among others, have called for the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to investigate these attacks as serious violations of IHL, there are disagreements about the relevance of this potential contribution.

More generally, the continuous deliberate targeting of medical facilities protected under IHL and the unwillingness of the international community to respond effectively — or even to condemn the attacks forcefully — also raises important questions about the future role and relevance of IHL in the international domain.

Similar questions surround the apparent failure of humanitarian diplomacy to stop these attacks from becoming standard practice in the theatre.

Noting these challenges, the panelists reflect on the following issues:

  • What are the implications for humanitarian access and the protection of civilians?
  • What are the long-term implications for the legitimacy and political value of international humanitarian law?
  • What kind of humanitarian diplomacy is needed to try to achieve accountability for humanitarian law violations and to prevent future attacks?
  • What has been the Norwegian response to these attacks? How is this response perceived by the Norwegian humanitarian community?

Panelists include:

  • Morten Rostrup (Medical Doctor and Professor, Department of Acute Medicine, Oslo University Hospital and former International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF))
  • Mads Harlem (Head of Policy and International Law, Røde Kors)
  • Kjetil M. Larsen (Professor of Law, Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at UiO)

The seminar was held on 14 October 2016 and chaired by Kristin B. Sandvik (PRIO).