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In the news: Hospitals likely attacked by Syrian government ‘and/or its allies’, UN finds

The report rejects the Syrian government claim that all medical sites in Idlib were inoperative.

Hospitals such as this one in rural southern Idlib were destroyed last year, although many were meant to be on no-strike lists. (Muhammad Al Hosse/TNH)

Syria “and/or its allies” were likely responsible for armed attacks on Syrian hospitals and other civilian facilities last year, including some on a UN no-strike list, according to a summary of a UN report released Monday. 

The report details a UN investigation that also found it “probable” that an extremist armed group attacked a settlement of Palestine refugees – one of six attacks from April to July 2019 that was investigated in detail.

The investigation panel reviewed seven attacks during an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by its ally Russia, to retake territory from armed groups in Idlib and surrounding areas. All were on the UN no-strike list or included facilities that received UN assistance, or both.

The panel was asked to investigate attacks on hospitals and clinics, a school, a children’s centre, and a settlement of Palestine refugees. It found that it was “plausible”, “probable”, or “highly probable” that air strikes and barrel bombs by the Syrian government “and/or its allies” were responsible for five of the attacks. One was likely by an extremist armed group, and the seventh was not investigated due to a technicality.

The report twice rejects claims by the Syrian government that all medical sites in Idlib were at the time either inoperative or overrun by armed “terrorists” and therefore not considered “civilian” under international humanitarian law.

The UN inquiry began in September, by which point the conflict had killed over 1,000 civilians and displaced 400,000. Hospitals and clinics were not spared, and the UN’s human rights spokesperson, among others, alleged that some were deliberately targeted.

The report criticised the UN’s handling of the “deconfliction” system in detail, but did not state whether that could have led to sites being targeted – a claim made by some activists and medical NGOs

The UN’s deconfliction mechanism gathered coordinates for civilian sites that under international law ought to be avoided and shared the data variously with Russia, the US-led coalition, and Turkey. Russia was “expected” to share the information with the Syrian government, the panel found, but there was no way to know if that happened. 

The 23-page public summary of the lengthy confidential report (185 pages plus 200 annexes) states that during the investigation, requests for information from Syria and several other governments went unanswered. It also described difficulties in getting full details on some humanitarian funding grants made by the UN’s humanitarian coordination office OCHA and by UNICEF. 

The UN secretary-general stated that he will appoint an independent advisor to tackle the “complex” issues raised.

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