The New Normal? When Hospitals Become Targets in War

Medical neutrality is a fundamental humanitarian principle and essential to ensuring human rights such as the Right to Health during war. The difficulty of treating wounded soldiers at the Battle of Solferino in 1859 in Northern Italy was in fact what spurred Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to write the first Geneva Convention. The paradox is that: “the greater the need for medical treatment, the more difficult it is to obtain such treatment, because the few place and people that can help, come under attack”.
These attacks are on the rise. The ICRC reports that within the last three years, there have been 2,400 targeted attacks against patients, health-care workers, transport and health centres in 11 countries. In May this year, the United Nations Security Council responded to increasing attacks on medical personnel by adopting Resolution 2286 (2016) which “strongly condemns the prevailing impunity for violations and abuses committed against medical personnel”. However, as pointed out by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), despite the Security Council being responsible for maintaining peace and security, four of its five permanent members have been associated with coalitions responsible for attacks on medical facilities over the last year (the odd one out is China).

One of the most flagrant, and widely reported, recent attacks on a medical facility was carried out by American troops. On 3 October 2015, Americans bombed a trauma centre in Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan run by Médecins Sans Frontières, killing 42 people, including 24 patients, 14 staff and 4 caretakers. A United States Department of Defense (DOD) investigation concluded that the airstrike was caused by “a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures. Fatigue and high operational tempo also contributed to the incident.” The investigation observed that these factors contributed to the “fog of war” but that the attack did not amount to a war crime, as none of the personnel knew they were striking a medical facility.

Airstrike on the Kundoz Military Facility

International Criminal Law is unclear on whether intent is necessary to commit a war crime. Criminal responsibility under the Statute establishing the International Criminal Court requires intent, but there is also support for the standard of recklessness in customary international law. This was highlighted by MSF and war crimes experts in response to the DOD investigation.

In that case, to what extent was the attack carried out recklessly? The evidence from the DOD investigation sets out a “cascade” of errors in identifying the hospital as the target, despite the coordinates having been supplied to US forces. The aircraft took off without having confirmed no-strike designations and, due to equipment failure, visually identified the incorrect target. The most heart wrenching detail is that staff in the hospital called and informed an American officer at the Bagram Air Base that the hospital was being bombed but that the attack did not cease. This was despite the fact that the call was made 11 minutes after the first wave of firing, which continued for 68 minutes. A New York Times investigation suggests that reason for the incorrect visual identification was that Afghan forces may have deliberately provided incorrect information to American troops, based on which they identified the hospital as a Taliban controlled compound. It also sets out an array of concerns regarding the chain of command.

These concerns, and many other remaining questions, highlight the need for an independent investigation outside the US chain of command. MSF have called for the matter to be referred to a International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, established in the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions, which has never  been used before.

The New York Times article suggests that, at least as far as the Afghans were concerned, the hospital was a legitimate target. And while the question of recklessness remains with respect to the Kunduz attack, deliberate and systematic targeting of medical facilities has become the new normal in other conflicts, including Syria and Yemen. In Syria, government forces have attacked not only field hospitals, but also paediatric and maternity hospitals and have made a double-tap strike their hallmark (where a second hit is carried out once a first emergency response has arrived to assist, maximising the number). An open letter sent in August from the last remaining doctors in Aleppo to President Obama noted that “whether we live or die seems to be dependent on the ebbs and flows of the battlefield”. In Yemen, US-backed, Saudi-led forces have bombed four MSF hospitals in the war with Houthi militias in the last 12 months, leading MSF to pull out of the northern part of the country.

Such attacks are preventing the provision of medical treatment for the most vulnerable – the sick and wounded – and have a doubly destructive effect on civilian populations, as it is not only medical staff and patients at risk but the entire civilian population who depends on those medical facilities for access to health care. Such attacks are also eroding medical neutrality as a cornerstone of international humanitarian law, which the indirect support by powerful nations, together with the continued impunity of perpetrators does nothing to abate. Health care is at a breaking point in many locations and it remains to be seen whether the Security Council can play an effective role in ensuring that medical personnel – and the civilian populations which rely on them – are protected.

 Tineke Baird is an international lawyer. She is interested in human rights, IHL, international criminal law, international organizations and counterterrorism. Tineke studied at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

For further information, see The Security Council Report:

Politics before Principle – bidding for the UN Secretary General’s job

The aborted attempt of former Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd for the United Nation’s top job of Secretary-General is a missed opportunity for Australia.

For a middle power, Australia likes to see itself as “punching above its weight” in diplomatic circles. During Australia’s tenure with a seat of the Security Council – which ended in 2015 – Australia drove many important reforms relating to humanitarian assistance to Syria, human rights in North Korea and a global response to the downed Malysia Airlines jet MH17.


The odds were stacked against Rudd from the start despite his qualifications. It is likely that the position will go to a candidate from Eastern Europe due to a “revolving” globe policy. The current post is held by a South Korean, before that a Ghanian, before that an Egyptian.

It is also time for the United Nations General Assembly to elect a woman.

Rudd’s credentials includes a depth of experience engaging with the United Nations at a time in which the multilateral system faces an unprecedented attack with the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s disdain for multilateralism. His other achievements include leading the apology to Australia’s indigenous peoples and driving Climate Change negotiations.

It is a surprise that the nomination of Rudd was eclipsed by party politics. Matters of foreign policy typically attract bipartisan support. It now emerges that Turnbull had previously expressed support for Rudd’s nomination in personal communications between Rudd and Turnbull.

The United Nations General Assembly

Opponents of the former New Zealand Prime Minister and head of the United Nations Development Programme Helen Clarke supported her nomination for the United Nations Secretary-General. Australia would do well to support her too.

Other candidates for the United Nations top job have attracted controversy. The candidacy of Argentinian born Susana Malcorra, the current Foreign Minister for that country, has been opposed by the United Kingdom because of her support for  the return of the Falkland Islands to Argentina.

The Secretary-General is appointed by the United Nations General Assembly, on recommendation of the five permanent members of the Security Council, who can veto any decision. The members of the Security Council are France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia and China. There are also ten non-permanent Security Council positions.


This year, candidates for the position took part in a televised and webcast debate in the General Assembly hall, where they spruiked their suitability for the job. The idea for the debates had its genesis in the idea that the process should be more inclusive and transparent.

During that debate, Helen Clark talked about the need for the United Nations to stay relevant and for reform to “clunky” and “clumsy” processes.

Watch this space on for continuous commentary on the selection of the United Nations Secretary-General.









Remembering Naomi Campbell’s “Blood Diamonds”

It’s time to enjoy a “Human Rights and Things” blog retrospective.

Cast your mind back to supermodel Naomi Campbell’s brush with International Criminal Law in 2010 ,when Campbell was called as a witness before the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Lines between celebrity and human rights causes are frequently crossed, with Amal Clooney – wife of George Clooney – one of the most high profile international criminal lawyers.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone is a hybrid court set up by the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone. It has been charged with the carrying out the prosecutions of persons for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed during the longstanding Sierra Leone Civil War of 1991-2002.

Prosecutors called Campbell as part of establishing a case that Charles Taylor traded in “blood” diamonds from Sierra Leone rebels in exchange for weapons used in Sierra Leone’s conflict().

Blood diamond – or conflict diamonds – is a term used for diamonds mined in a war zone and used to fund conflicts or insurgencies. The trade was popularized in a 2006 film of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

It was alleged that Campbell was given diamonds by Charles Taylor at a function held by Nelson Mandela in 1997. At first, Campbell denied ever being given the diamonds.


Naomi Campbell



She then testified in court that two men knocked at her door and gave her “two, small, dirty looking stones” .

Campbell also said that she feared for her safety if she was implicated in the court case.

On the 26th of April 2012, Charles Taylor was convicted on all 11 counts of war crimes, becoming the first African Head of State to be indicted for such crimes.

Campbell continues to model for top fashion houses at the same time as being an active campaigner for social justice and equality.

Why Wider War is Leaving Israel Behind

Israel is waiting and watching to see how the crisis in the Middle East is unfolding.

Violence persists on a domestic front. A suicide bombing sponsored by Hamas on a bus in the Talpiot neighbourhood of Jerusalem injured 21 people on the 18th of August on the 18th of August 2016.

In the region, the Mediterranean country – with a economy on the way up – is forming new alliances with other states as old enemies are distracted by intractable conflicts. Turkey and Israel are moving towards a reconciliation that would end a six year impasse, spurred on by the discovery of huge gas deposits in the nearby sea.

The two countries froze relations after Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish flotilla protesting against conditions in the Gaza Strip in 2010. A report headed by Geoffrey Palmer had found that Israel’s blockade against the flotilla breached international human rights conventions.

The Flotilla off the Coast of Israel, 2010


In a sign of improving ties with Egypt, Israel is set to return stolen antiquities over 3,000 years old to Cairo.

Traditional foes such as Iran have succumbed to the pressure of the international community, suspending their nuclear program for a decade or more. Syria is divided by a Civil War which may last decades.

The roadmap to peace, however,  has all but collapsed as Israel moves closer to the right. Avigdor Lieberman – recently named as Israel’s defence minister – has long publically refuted a two state solution for Palestine. However, there is wider apathy in the region, with the Economist reporting that “these days conversations about the state of the Arab world can go on for hours before the word “Palestine” is uttered”.

Given the unpredictability factor of the Middle East, how long the respite from conflict with other states will last – however – is anyone’s guess.

Survival? the European Court of Human Rights and the “Brexit”

The debate over the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) has also seen renewed calls for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The ECHR – ratification of which was a precondition for joining the European Union – has ruled on a variety of human rights issues across the EU – including the lawful use of force, deportation of refugees, privacy and terrorism.

Home Secretary Theresa May said in a speech that, “The ECHR can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments…”

“So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this: if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court,” she said.


Calls to leave the ECHR in Great Britain are nothing new. The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto committed it to a diminished role for the ECHR. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron refused to rule it out in a speech in parliament in June 2015.

The United Kingdom has come under criticism for a lack of willingness to  implement the judgments of the European Court. In 2013, the Council of Europe Commissioner noted that the actions of the United Kingdom could encourage other states to forgo their obligations.

In her speech, May distanced herself from calls to leave the European Union. In response, former conservative shadow minister David Davis said that it was “extraordinarily inconsistent” to want to stay within the EU and leave the ECHR.

“She seems not to have understood the power and forcefulness of the European Court of Justice. If we pulled out of the ECHR, for which we would get much opprobrium, and stay in the EU, all that would happen is the European court of justice will do exactly what the ECHR did before but with more force, because the charter of fundamental rights is the European convention plus, not minus. Logically, it does not stand up.”

The United Kingdom – by leaving the ECHR – could also signal that it no longer respect human rights, being a requisite for membership of the European Union.

May’s comments will have given comfort to countries like Russia, who in 2015 signed a law that gave the Russian courts the power to overrule judgments of the ECHR.



What could peace in Syria look like?

The withdrawal of Russian troops from the Syrian conflict has taken many by surprise.

Some commentators have noted the surgical nature of the world’s largest country’s intervention into Russia. The goals of the intervention – to strengthen the Assad regime’s hand at the negotiating table – look like done deeds.

The sum total of the intervention was five months. Russia will remove its ground troops but remain in control of a naval base in the coastal Mediterranean province of Latakia (as well a naval refueling station in Tartus).

Speculation has it that Putin wanted to avoid a costly, drawn-up military struggle, given the tanking Soviet economy and sanctions over the Ukraine, which are still biting.

Negotiations in Geneva

Observers from Washington will be watching with some envy, after the dithering about intervention into Syria from the Obama administration. The United States has consistently linked military intervention with nation building – and has been reluctant to get dragged into another Iraq in Syria.


Russian maneuvering has been largely responsible for a ceasefire agreement in Geneva which has halted the flow of weapons into Syria. A report in the Middle East Eye stated that “the entire armed opposition has thus been shut down in Syria on the insistence of the United States”.

A future role for Assad in government looks increasingly assured (although what shape this role will be is up for grabs) . The United States has refused to entertain the idea of Assad’s future leadership, largely because of human rights concerns, namely the use of chemical weapons by Assad on Syrian civilians.

The Syrian Centre for Policy Research has listed 470,000 Syrian civilians as casualties of the conflict, with many more displaced.


Human rights officials have already called for justice on both sides as part of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry.

A United Nations Security Council resolution referring the conflict to the International Criminal Court was blocked by China and Russia in May 2014. A subsequent resolution made no mention of  criminal justice in the roadmap to peace.

Outrage over alleged torture of Italian student Regeni in Egypt

The murder of Italian national and Cambridge PhD student Giulo Regeni whilst carrying out research in Cairo, Egypt, has troubling consequences for Freedom of Expression and other human rights in that country.

The body of Regeni – 28 years old – was found on the outskirts of Cairo with signs of torture on February 3. The murder has been alleged to have been committed by the Egyptian Security Forces.

Regini was carrying out research on Egyptian labor unions and had been in contact with Egyptian opposition forces when he went missing on January 25.

Giulo Regeni


The act has led to the rapid deterioration of relations between Egypt and the European Union. Egypt has claimed that systematic state torture does not exist and has distanced itself from involvement in Regeni’s killing.

Relations between Egypt and Italy have deteriorated with a trade delegation suspended. Economic ties between Egypt and Italy are strong, with the recent discovery of a major natural gas field in Egypt by Italian energy giant Eni.

The European Parliament has called for an impartial and effective investigation of those responsible for the abduction and killing of Regeni in a non-binding resolution passed by a vote of 588-10 on the 11 March.

The deterioration of the situation of human rights in Egypt has become an increasing focus for the European Parliament. Spanish member and chair of the human rights subcommittee Elena Valenciano said that “the respect of human rights and international commitments is a core principle of the agreements between the Eu and Egypt. We must live up to that commitment.”

The resolution also calls for an end to the closure and ongoing harassment of civil society groups working in Egypt.

Arms deals between Egypt and France, Germany and the United Kingdom have been condemned as short-cited and there have been calls to suspend export of any equipment which might be used for “internal repression”. Egypt says that it needs the equipment in Libya and parts of the Sinai peninsula to fight off extremist attacks.

There has also been outrage expressed by the academic community. More than 4,600 academics from more than 90 different countries signed an open letter protesting against the murder  and torture of Regeni. The letter was started in Cambridge by Regeni’s colleagues but went viral amongst academics.

A Memorial for Regeni


The letter notes that state institutions in Egypt “routinely practice the same kinds of torture that Guilio is reported to have suffered against hundreds of Egyptian citizens each year.”

In addition to his academic activities, it has emerged that Regeni also worked as a journalist for Il Manifesto, an Italian communist newspaper.

This blog has discussed the deterioration of press freedom of Egypt previously, with the imprisonment of Peter Greste and other local journalists working for Al Jazeera. In December 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists listed Egypt as the second biggest jailer of journalists worldwide, the honour of first place going to China. Other top jailers of journalists include Iran, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam.

The Universal Declaration of Art?

Art makes a great gift between countries. The paintings hanging on the walls of the United Nations are a often a tribute to a countries’ finest cultural traditions.

Art is no stranger to travel. Paintings and sculptures cross international boundaries frequently. Travelling art such as the recent exhibition of the “Greats” from the National Galleries of Scotland at the Art Gallery of NSW are the outcome of years of negotiations and planning. They are more than a gesture of goodwill from another nation. They can be even an expression of powerful old empire ties.

Sir Henry Raeburn Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddington Lock c1795; Sandro Botticelli, The Vigin adoring the sleeping Christ child (“The Wemyss Madonna) c1485. Scottish National Gallery © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

Artists often go abroad in search of inspiration and patronage. The centres of fine learning often shift – New York, Paris, Naples. Many of the “Greats” studies, lived and worked in many different cities around the world and took their inspiration from the local people and norms.

When we look at artistic endeavour, we see an image of a historical norms and values. The subject matter and even the way in which the art is made is frozen in time. We look at art and become curious at the scenes of life it depicts – of a rustic village, a public gathering or the portrait of an officer.

Who and what we choose to display on our walls, on our buildings and in our squares – paintings, sculpture, architecture – says a lot about nation-building mythologies. This can create tension because social and political movements can displace the dominant mythologies and lead people to question why that piece of art or that sculpture is occupying public space.

The Economist reported that students from the University of Cape Town in South Africa have led a campaign against apartheid art on campus. This involved storming the campus of the University of Cape Town to remove a statute of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist who held racist views. At a later date, students also stormed the campus and took artworks off the wall and burned them.

The Economist states that the protests are “symptomatic” of a resurgence of racial antagonism in South Africa, aggravated by a slowing economy and high unemployment. Many black South Africans are worse off than whites and less educated because of apartheid’s legacy and the government’s failed policies in this respect.

There have also been ongoing protests against increased student fees against Jacob Zuma’s government.

South African Police fire tear gas at student protests in 21 October 2015

Students have turned to art as a subject of protest. Could it ever be a breach of someone’s international human rights to hang a particular piece of art on a wall?

Art is a potent reminder of the many breaches of international human rights law in South Africa. However, it would be contrary to Article 19 on the Right to Freedom of Expression if it became a violation of international human rights law to display racist artworks on the wall. In societies which hold freedom of expression to be a basic tenet of society, the idea of banning art because it expresses loathsome ideas is an anathema. This is convincing.

Without wanting to make any blanket rules, societies should only consider passing legislation that prohibits certain forms of art in the most extreme circumstances. This could be when a link between a piece of art and war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. As you may have guessed, this is fairly academic in Australia but in countries such as Germany with its Holocaust, the debate has been a lot more charged.

When laws are not passed by Parliament, social movements and opinion in society has sometimes stepped into the gap – as seen through calls to topple statutes of fascist rulers in town squares in countries such as post-Franco Spain and other fascist states.

Even if the Economist reports that students sometimes targeted the wrong paintings, art should never be immune from critique and, where necessary, social protest. Art inspires us but it is also can be a catalyst for social change. It should not be left out of the debate.

What Next for the Nile?


Agreement is one step closer to reality in the contest for control of the Nile waters in Africa.

The Nile River

Ministers of Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia met in December 2015 to discuss the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. A communiqué – known as the Khartoum Document – was signed on the 29 of December.

A new study into the impact of the Dam has been commissioned. Two French firms have been awarded contracts to assess the impact of the Dam on downstream countries’ water shares.

The Dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant with a storage capacity of 74 billion cubic metres of water. The site is at the juncture where the Blue Nile crosses into the Sudan, before joining Egypt and heading to the Meditereanean Sea.

On 23 March 2015, a tripartite understanding was historically reached between the three major countries that host one of the world’s greatest rivers.

This is far removed from the situation on the 3 June 2013, when Egyptian political leaders suggested methods to destroy the dam, including support for anti-governmental rebels

The Renaissance Dam

Work on the Dam commenced in 2012, with Ethiopia insisting that the Renaissance Dam would improve power generation and not harm Egypt or the Sudan.

Pundits agreed that the construction of the Dam was timely, with Egypt distracted by the chaos of the Arab Spring.

Concern has been expressed by States about how the Dam will adversely affect their share of the Nile’s waters, which the citizens depend on for their water supply.

Egyptian President Abel Fattah Al-Sisi said “I understand [the Egyptian’s concerns] because water is a matter of life and death.”

Egypt’s own claims to superiority over the river, namely the British mediated 1959 Nile Waters Agreement, have generally not been accepted

On the domestic front, Ethiopia faces considerable opposition to building the Grand Renaissance Dam. The impact of the Gilgel Gibe project on the Omo river will transform the way of life of a half a million Ethiopians and their agro-pastoralist lifetsyles.

Local communities, environmental campaigners and human rights groups say that the changing flood cycle will mean that some groups will become dependent on aid from the government.

A report by NGO International Rivers found that people living by the river still had “very little idea of what the dam is, or what impact it would have on their life.”

There are fears that Lake Turkana in Kenya, which is downstream, will dry out, impacting upon rural groups.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt caused widespread displacement of the Nubian peoples, many who lost their lands.

Climate change has led to worldwide competition over scarce agricultural resources.

In the Middle East, wars are fought over strategic control of water resources like the Mosul Dam in Iraq. The capture of Mosul in 2014 led to widespread concerns about the integrity of the Dam, which has been labeled as “structurally unstable”.

In China, the Three Gorges Dam has been attacked for ignorance of the human rights of the many rural communities that will be affected.

The United Nations has recognized that the right to water is an inalienable human rights. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said that “the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity”,

The right to water should not come at the expense of other human rights, such as the right to a livelihood, say human rights experts.

Economic progress has accompanied domestic discontent in Africa, with Ethiopia’s economic miracle being lauded by commentators. The growth rate of Ethiopia is 11%, making Ethiopia the fastest growing in Africa.

Independent observers predict that Ethiopia will be the next African powerhouse, already overtaking regional rival Kenya. The country is the home of the African Union and provides more United Nations peacekeepers than any other African country.

Agricultural reform will drive economic reform. Two per cent of the rural population has access to electricity, limiting growth opportunities.

The Renaissance Dam is set to double the countries’ electrical grid, with surplus to be exported to the rest of Africa.

The Renaissance Dam

Government rhetoric has reached fever pitch, with sources suggesting that Ethiopia will be free of aid dependency by 2015.

Government rhetoric may not match reality on the ground. A drought has caused a food shortage that could affect a tenth of Ethiopia’s population, with about 400,000 children at risk of malnutrition.

In the 1980s, a similar crisis led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Worldwide coverage of the famine led to the international community contributing many millions in aid

The current famine has not attracted the same publicity. Mario Zappacosta, an economist with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that “there is some doubt that Ethiopia can pop up as a priority when you have Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic and many other places in the world in bad situations.”

Time will tell whether the Dam will be the quick-fix in the eyes of the government.

New War Crimes Court for Kosovo

It is a time of change in the international criminal law scene in the Hague, Netherlands.

Heads are turning now to a new specialist war crimes court recently approved by the Kosovo parliament. The Court will be officially known as the Kosovo Relocated Specialist Judicial Institution.

Kosovo Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci and Prime Minister Isa Mustafa.


Continue reading “New War Crimes Court for Kosovo”