“Hospitals Shields”: International Humanitarian Law and the Targeting of Medical Facilities in Middle Eastern Conflicts

By Nicola Perugini
Submitted to Session P5052 (International Law in the Contemporary Middle East: Impeding or Facilitating Violence? (Part 2), 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Hospitals have increasingly been targeted in different Middle Eastern conflicts (Yemen, Palestine, Syria). The justification for these assaults has been uncannily similar: the hospitals were bombed because they were shielding combatants. Hospitals, in other words, are now classified as equivalent to human shields—civilians who protect military targets and, according to international law, can be killed by the attacking forces as long as they abide by the principle of proportionality. The different instances whereby hospitals are bombed are tied together not merely by the use of a similar rhetoric, but also by the same underlying assumption: when health care facilities become “hospital shields” they lose the protected status they are granted by the Geneva Conventions. In this process one of the founding pillars of international law is undermined: the principle of distinction between legitimate military targets and protected civilian sites. The tragic irony, as the paper shows, is that international humanitarian law itself—by revoking the protection to which it entitles medical facilities when they are used to “commit acts harmful to the enemy”—offers the legal toolkit for justifying the bombing of hospitals.