“The entire cycle of life is being attacked – from cradle to grave,” Afghanistan’s first female ambassador to the United States, Roya Rahmani, told Foreign Policy the day after heavily armed militants stormed a maternity ward and targeted new mothers and their newborn babies at Kabul’s Ataturk Hospital.
The details are as gruesome and grim as the darkest recesses of our collective imagination. The hospital’s director, Dr. Hassan Kamel, described it as the most “horrific, brutal act” he had witnessed in his two-decade long career. Dressed as policemen, the three gunmen barged into the hospital’s maternity ward at 10 a.m. local time on May 12 and began shooting mothers and their babies at point blank range as they laid recovering in their beds or bassinets. The massacre left 24 people, including 16 women and two newborns, dead – and at least six babies now left without a mother.
The hospital’s director described the maternity ward attack in Kabul as the most “horrific, brutal act” he had witnessed.
“Who attacks newborn babies and new mothers? Who does this? The most innocent of innocents, a baby! Why?” posted Deborah Lyons, head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, in a tweet.
Her condemnation was echoed by governments and political leaders around the world, with headlines reading, “India Condemns Barbaric Terrorist Attacks in Afghanistan,” “Egypt Condemns Afghanistan Attacks,” “US Secretary Pompeo Condemns Horrific Terrorist Attacks in Afghanistan,” and “WHO Chief Condemns Afghan Hospital Attack,” among others.
No doubt, there’s hardly a more heinous act of war than attacking non-combatants and healthcare infrastructure, and the international community is justified in its righteous outrage towards an attack that was likely carried out by ISIS militants. But why was this global solidarity absent when the Assad regime, together with the Russian Air Force, has attacked and bombed hospitals and medical clinics throughout Syria for the past eight years?
Why did the international community turn a blind eye to Israel’s bombing of three hospitals during its 2014 invasion of Gaza?
Why did the international community so easily turn a blind eye to Israel’s bombing of no fewer than three hospitals during its 2014 invasion of Gaza?
Why does the international community find it easy to stand unified against the brutality of non-state groups, like the Taliban and ISIS, but difficult to respond in kind when the same kind of violence is carried out by state actors, such as the Syrian government, Russia, and Israel?
Could ISIS, or whoever else is responsible for the maternity ward attack in Kabul, be forgiven for thinking the international community is totally down with the deliberate targeting of hospitalized women and children, given it has remained conspicuously silent as Russian warplanes bomb fully operable Syrian hospitals into dust?
According to researchers at Physicians for Human Rights, whose claims have been rigorously corroborated, Assad and Putin have carried out 537 attacks on at least 350 separate healthcare facilities in the period spanning March 2011 to April 2020, while bearing in mind Russia entered the conflict in 2015.
Assad and Putin have carried out 537 attacks on at least 350 separate healthcare facilities from March 2011 to April 2020.
When the Assad regime stepped up its military campaign against anti-government forces and 3 million refugees in Idlib last year, Susannah Sirkin, Director of Policy and a senior advisor at Physicians for Human Rights, wrote: “The courageous medics who remain in what’s left of Idlib’s health facilities can expect more strikes on their surgical units. This is because the vast majority of attacks on health centers in Syria are not accidents, not ‘collateral damage,’ nor terrorist propaganda. The Syrian and Russian government bombing of hospitals represents their deliberate, inhumane, and illegal strategy of war.”
A New York Times investigation found that Russia deliberately bombed four Syrian hospitals in a single 12-hour period in May 2019 based on obtained Russian Air Force radio recordings, plane spotter logs, and witness accounts. “The 12-hour period beginning on May 5 represents a small slice of the air war in Syria, but it is a microcosm of Russia’s four-year military intervention in Syria’s civil war,” the article states.
Despite this overwhelming evidence, however, the United Nations has stopped short of directly accusing the Russian Air Force of deliberately targeting hospitals and medical facilities in its recently published inquiry, mostly out of fear of “offending” Russia, according to a number of human rights groups.
“The refusal to explicitly name Russia as a responsible party working alongside the Syrian government… is deeply disappointing,” says Human Rights Watch.
The UN-led international community has failed to take meaningful action against Israel’s targeting of Gaza’s healthcare system.
Equally, the United Nations led international community has also failed to condemn or take meaningful action against Israel’s deliberate targeting of Gaza’s healthcare system, which has been brought to ruins by multiple Israeli military invasions, bombing campaigns, and enforced blockade. Israel has hoped that by targeting the Strip’s hospitals and starving them of the medicine and equipment they need, conditions will become unlivable for 2 million Palestinians and exert crushing political pressure on Hamas.
“The Gaza Strip has been under strict Israeli siege for the past 14 years, which has affected all aspects of life in a devastating way, including the health system,” Dr. Basem Naim, a former Palestinian Minister of Health and resident of Gaza, told Inside Arabia. Naim added that the Israeli military bombed no fewer than three hospitals during its 2014 invasion of Gaza.
But neither Israel nor Assad and Russia’s deliberate targeting of hospitals, patients, and medical professionals elicits the same level of global condemnation and righteous outrage witnessed in response to the Afghan hospital attack. It would suggest the world has become numb to acts of state terrorism, which represents the lion share of global terrorist acts, while remaining shocked by the violent acts of non-state extremist militants.
When we accept and then normalize attacks carried out by powerful nation states on hospitals and healthcare systems, but then scream blue bloody murder when Islamic militants do likewise, our hypocrisy is laid bare – a double standard that further endangers members of the already imperiled medical profession.
“The longer the international community fails to enforce humanitarian law, the greater the chance that these violations will become the ‘new normal’ in armed conflicts.”
“The effects of these violations and absence of accountability will go far beyond Syria. The longer the international community fails to enforce humanitarian law, the greater the chance that these violations will become the ‘new normal’ in armed conflicts around the world, eroding the long-standing norm of medical neutrality. Left unchecked, such attacks on medical care will become a standard weapon of war,” observe doctors with the National Institute of Health.
As such, we must assign our outrage proportionately. A murderer is a murderer. A war criminal is a war criminal. It should matter not whether the perpetrator has sworn allegiance to an ideological driven organization or politically driven nation. All victims are equal.