Russian attacks on Ukrainian health workers, hospitals amount to war crimes: report

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As Ukrainians mark a grim anniversary, one brutal year of war and devastation, new data is shining a light on the particularly gruesome impacts of Russia’s attacks on health-care facilities and workers – atrocities that human rights advocates say amount to war crimes.

More than 700 attacks have targeted hospitals, health facilities and staff since the Feb. 24, 2022, Russian invasion, according to data verified by five organizations working inside Ukraine.

Their report, entitled Destruction and Devastation: One Year of Russia’s Assault on Ukraine’s Health Care System chronicles the stark realities faced by health workers and patients in Ukraine, as health facilities have been hit multiple times by missiles and attacks.

Dozens of doctors and nurses and other health staff bravely providing medical treatment have been killed and injured. Others have been threatened, imprisoned, taken hostage and forced to work under Russian occupation, the report states.

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Ukrainian firefighters work at a damaged hospital maternity ward in Vilniansk, Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. A Russian rocket struck the maternity wing of a hospital in eastern Ukraine, killing a newborn boy and critically injuring a doctor. (AP Photo/Kateryna Klochko, File). SG

This has left Ukrainians’ access to life-saving medical care almost impossible in some regions, the report says.

The evidence documenting what appear in some cases to be targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure, health facilities and medical personnel shows the Russian military has violated international humanitarian law. These crimes should be prosecuted both domestically and by the International Criminal Court, says Christian De Vos, director of research and investigations with Physicians for Human Rights, one of the groups that compiled and authored the report.

“The attacks on health … they are illegal under the Geneva Conventions,” he said.

“These are war crimes and potentially crimes against humanity.”

In total, there were 707 documented attacks on health facilities, clinics, ambulances and medical personnel in 2022 – a grim tally that amounts to at least two attacks on health every day over the course of the past year, De Vos said.

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“Those are shocking numbers … the scale is really quite staggering.”

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According to the data, between Feb. 24 and Dec. 31, 2022, there were 292 documented attacks that damaged or destroyed 218 hospitals and clinics. Many health facilities were attacked more than once.

There were also 65 documented attacks on ambulances and 181 documented attacks on other health infrastructure such as pharmacies, blood centers, dental clinics and research centers.

A total of 86 attacks on health-care workers were documented, with 62 health workers having been killed and 52 injured.

One in 10 of Ukraine’s hospitals has been directly damaged by attacks, with the heaviest destruction in the eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk as well as in Kherson and Kyiv, according to the report.

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In some cities and towns, nearly all health facilities were harmed in some way.

A woman walks outside the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. A Russian attack severely damaged a maternity hospital in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials say. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka). EM

In 10 regions of the country, 48 hospitals were hit multiple times, a statistic that De Vos says points not only to the indiscriminate nature of the attacks but also to the possibility that they were deliberately targeted.

For instance, the Severodonetsk City Multiprofile Hospital in Luhansk was hit 10 times between March and May 2022, the report says. Another hospital in Kharkiv was hit five times.

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These attacks have had a “devastating” effect on Ukrainians’ access to health care, De Vos said.

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“There are so many cascading effects from attacks in health beyond the physical damage done to a hospital or to a medical vehicle … fear and terror in civilian populations,” he said.

“These also make it more difficult for civilian populations to access important medicines, vaccinations, care for chronic conditions, as well as regular ongoing care that people need to ensure good health. So, this directly impacts the right to access health care.”

Lyubov Smachylo, an analyst with Media Initiative for Human Rights, which also worked to gather evidence for the report, says one in three Ukrainians currently do not have access to medical treatment as a result of the attacks on health facilities and workers.

She described being brought to tears by the accounts of doctors interviewed by researchers who relayed harrowing stories of survival.

“We want to hold Russia accountable for its crimes,” she said in an interview with Global News from Ukraine.

She pointed to evidence showing some hospitals bore internationally recognized symbols of their status as medical centers – a red cross on a white canvas – that were clearly visible from the air. Yet these hospitals were still struck by Russian missiles, the report documents, citing first-hand witness testimonies.

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“They don’t care that all these things are forbidden by international humanitarian law,” Smachylo said.

The human rights organizations that gathered and documented these attacks are calling on the international community to ensure Russia is held responsible.

“Precisely because attacks on health care are so devastating and unfortunately have been so under-investigated and under-prosecuted historically, there’s a huge impunity gap here for attacks on health care in particular,” De Vos said.

“Prioritize these attacks for further investigation and prosecution and … build cases that can ultimately result in accountability for these violations.”

The World Health Organization has similarly documented more than 750 attacks and 101 deaths, and Ukraine’s health minister said recently that more than 1,200 facilities have been damaged either directly or indirectly, with 173 hospitals damaged beyond repair.

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— with files from The Associated Press

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