Dear Secretary-General Guterres,
We, the undersigned, urge you to ensure that the facts related to the incidents under investigation by the United Nations (UN) Headquarters Board of Inquiry – of damage or destruction to deconflicted facilities, including hospitals and health clinics, in northwest Syria – are made known to the public.
Any meaningful accountability for these acts requires that the findings of the Board’s report, once finalized in early 2020, be made public and the responsible parties be identified. For all those in the health sector, for human rights defenders, and for all who place confidence in the UN, it is clear that a credible inquiry initiated by your office into attacks on health facilities under a UN-brokered protection mechanism, many of which may amount to war crimes, must involve both thorough fact-finding and public truth-telling.
Attacks on health care facilities have been a defining feature of the ongoing conflict in Syria. From March 2011 through November 2019, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) corroborated 588 attacks on 350 separate facilities and documented the killing of 914 medical personnel. More than 90 percent of the attacks on these health care facilities were committed by Syrian government and allied forces, according to PHR’s research. In July, Susannah Sirkin, PHR’s director of policy, warned the UN Security Council that the escalation in brutal attacks on hospitals and health facilities in Idlib and northwestern Syria “could result in the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.” Your subsequent decision to establish a Board of Inquiry into incidents of damage to humanitarian, including medical, facilities that had been either deconflicted under a UN mechanism or were UN-supported constituted an important step towards meaningful accountability. Nevertheless, it clearly remained insufficient in its examination of just seven cases, given the appalling and blatant nature of the ongoing attacks on civilians and the broader pattern of systematically targeting health care and health workers for close to a decade, which in PHR’s assessment would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Against the backdrop of continued impunity for these crimes in Syria, the scale and intensity of these attacks have made these trends an issue of grave international public concern. The New York Times has reported that the Board’s work may be undermined by Russian lobbying within the UN in order to cover up the already public indications of the parties responsible for the vast majority of these crimes. The investigative team of the New York Times has recently published visual evidence of multiple incidents of the Russian air force bombing hospitals, including in so-called “deconflicted” areas. In light of this public evidence of a party’s responsibility and the troves of publicly available data on hundreds of other attacks on medical facilities in Syria, a credible UN inquiry has no choice but to make its findings public. Moreover, failure to assign responsibility for these deadly attacks when so much evidence already exists would be an insult to the victims and to the hospital workers who shared their locations with the UN, believing it would spare them from bombardment.
Your role as UN Secretary-General to uphold the principles of the UN and support truth and accountability in Syria is of critical importance. For the UN to meaningfully follow your “Sustaining Peace” and conflict prevention agenda and to fulfill its purposes under Article 1 of the UN Charter to prevent and remove threats to peace and to promote human rights, we urge you as its chief administrative officer to ensure that any findings related to grave breaches of international humanitarian law are known.