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Doctors and citizens under fire in conflict zones

It is time for the international community to put a stop to war crimes – especially against medical personnel, argued international chair of Doctors Without Borders Joanne Liu in her Cleveringa lecture.

More and more hospitals, doctors and patients are literally coming under fire. In conflict zones, soldiers deliberately bomb medical centres. The international community must intervene, argued Liu on 25 November during the annual Cleveringa lecture. This year the Canadian paediatrician occupies the Leiden University Cleveringa chair, established in memory of the protest speech held by the eponymous Leiden professor in 1940 (see box).


Liu speaks from experience. Since her appointment in 2013 as chair of Doctors Without Borders she has witnessed many conflicts and crises. Natural disasters, the Ebola outbreak, but also a lot of violence at the hands of other humans. She mentions the example of the American attack on the largest trauma centre of Doctors Without Borders in the Afghan Province of Kunduz. ‘That day in October 2015 marks a black day for our organisation. We counted no less than 42 casualties. And that while the GPS coordinates of the hospital were known to the authorities.’

Deliberate actions

According to Liu, these attacks on hospitals are not always accidents or ‘collateral damage’ in military jargon. She estimates that more than half of these attacks are deliberate. According to Liu, this is what is happening right now in besieged East Aleppo in Syria. ‘The Syrian army employs a ‘surrender or die’ strategy. Civilian targets are destroyed on a regular basis. And the eight remaining hospitals have been bombed a total of 33 times so far.’ Across Syria, sixty-three of the seventy medical centres supported by Doctors Without Borders were hit one or more times in air raids.


It is difficult for organisations such as Doctors Without Borders to continue to work in this kind of life-threatening conflict. It requires a radical neutrality and impartiality. ‘We treat all patients, irrespective of who they are, what they believe, or where they come from,’ said Liu. ‘Which is why I am so honoured to have been invited to occupy the Cleveringa chair. In the dark days [of World War II, editors’ note], Professor Cleveringa also held on to his belief that all lives mattered.’

All lives matter

According to Liu the aid organisation does need help to curb the many acts of violence against medical personnel. In May, the United Nations adopted a resolution that condemns this kind of violence. ‘We have to join forces to make sure that this resolution is complied with, and a stop is put to unlimited warfare. Wars must stop at the door of the hospital. All lives matter. Including the lives of people fleeing from war and other dangers. This is a rule that may not be broken.’


Bust of Cleveringa unveiled

The Cleveringa lecture was preceded by the unveiling of a bust of Rudolph Cleveringa at the Faculty of Law. This sculpture was donated to the University by Cleveringa’s daughter and it will be given a place of honour in the Kamerlingh Onnes building. On 26 November 1940, Dean of the Faculty of Law Rudolph Cleveringa protested in a now famous protest speech against the removal of his Jewish colleague Eduard Meijer, who had been dismissed that very morning by order of the German occupier. Every year, Leiden University commemorates this act of resistance on or around 26 November.

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