Wednesday, November 10, 2004

A war crime of the first order

The US has long been violating the Geneva Conventions with their treatment of captured Afghans in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, by their failure to properly provide for civilians in Iraq, and with the indiscriminate use of force which unneccessarily endangers civilian lives. But their attack on Fallujah has just breached another taboo - their first target was the hospital. In the process of storming it, US and Iraqi troops dragged patients from their beds, arrested every male of "military age" (meaning anyone not in nappies or with a walking stick), and killed 38 people. One of their excuses was that the hospital was being used for military purposes, however the Geneva Conventions only allow medical facilities to be attacked if they are explicitly used for "acts harmful to the enemy", and then only under certain conditions (see articles 18 and 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention; similar rules apply to military hospitals). Another, more revealing, excuse was provided by Donald Rumsfeld in his press conferance this afternoon: the hospital was taken to prevent the Iraqis from "inflating" civilian body counts. Unfotunately, it seems that the chief method of preventing such "inflation" is preventing hospital staff from treating the injured:

Dr Salih al-Issawi, the director of Fallujah Hospital, said he asked US officers to allow doctors and ambulances to go inside the main part of the city to help the wounded, but they refused. He said: "The American troops' attempt to take over the hospital was not right because they thought that they would halt medical assistance to the resistance. But they did not realise that the hospital does not belong to anybody, especially the resistance."

While the Americans can at least argue a case justifying an attack on a hospital, no such case can be made for preventing medical staff from doing their utmost to help people in need. Both the Geneva Conventions and the customary international law which they express are quite clear: medical staff are neutral, entitled to protection, and must be allowed to go about their duties without interference. The fact that they may (and in fact, ethically must) treat wounded combatants is not a sufficient reason to restrain them. By forbidding medical staff from carrying out their humanitarian duties, the US is committing a war crime of the first order.