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#NotATarget: The Protection of Medical Personnel and Facilities in Armed Conflict

The Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law clearly prohibit any attacks on medical units and establishments during armed conflicts. Unfortunately, despite this clear prohibition, medical personnel and medical facilities continue to be the subject of attacks. Doctors now risk their lives to enter conflict zones to ameliorate the suffering of the wounded, knowing that these legal prohibitions do little to protect them from bombing, shelling, and deliberate suffering.

On 28 September, the Leiden University Medical Centre and MSF Holland organised a well-attended public lecture on 'The Protection of Medical Personnel and Facilities in Armed Conflict' to raise awareness of this alarming trend. Speakers included Professor Mattijs Numans (LUMC); Katrien Coppens (MSF/AZG), Professor Barend Middelkoop (LUMC); Jelte van Wieren (Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and Associate Professor Dr Robert Heinsch (Kalshoven-Gieskes Forum for International Humanitarian Law, Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies).

The audience heard worrying statistics about the amount of attacks MSF facilities and staff have been subjected to over recent years and the effects these attacks have on the amount of doctors volunteering to help the wounded. The attacks also have a chilling effect on wounded people seeking assistance when they need it, fearful that medical facilities are no longer safe places. Jelte van Wieren highlighted the priorities for the Netherlands as it takes its place as a democratically-elected member of the United Nations Security Council in ensuring respect and compliance for international law and accountability for those who violate it (noting that these positions were subject to change given the current lack of government in the Netherlands). Dr Robert Heinsch explained to the audience how international law protects medical facilities and staff during armed conflict and the imperfections in the legal regimes to ensure that these laws are respected, answering many questions on these topics during the Q&A session.

As part of its efforts to ensure the safety and security of medical facilities, staff, and patients, MSF has launched the #notatarget campaign in the hope of urging United Nations Member States to take positive action to ensure that doctors can continue to operate in conflicts, free from fear of attack, and allowing them to carry out their humanitarian mission to provide medical aid to anyone who needs it.

Sign the petition #NotATarget

Definitely sign the petition (in Dutch) if you believe hospitals should never be a target.