UK must help protect health workers in Gaza at UN Human Rights Council

This week, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) issued a written statement on attacks on health workers in Gaza ahead of the 40th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council. During the session, member States, including the UK, have an important opportunity to ensure Palestinian health workers are protected from attack.

Attacks on healthcare amid protests in Gaza

MAP’s statement details how health workers in Gaza have been killed and injured by Israeli forces while trying to reach, treat and evacuate wounded demonstrators at the “Great March of Return”, which began on 30 March 2018.

From 30 March to 31 December 2018, three health workers were shot dead - Musa Abu-Hassanin, Razan al-Najjar and Abdallah al-Qutati - and 560 injured in Gaza, the majority while on duty at the protests. Amongst those wounded, 7% were injured by live ammunition, 6% by shrapnel, 6% by rubber bullets, 15% by direct hits from tear gas canisters and 66% by tear gas inhalation.

The statement emphasises that Musa, Razan and Abdallah are just the latest fatalities from within the Palestinian healthcare system which has suffered repeated attacks, carried out with impunity for more than a decade. In Israel’s military offensives on Gaza between 2008 and 2014, 39 Palestinian health workers were killed, and 147 healthcare centres and 80 ambulances damaged or destroyed.

The UN Commission of Inquiry

At a special session in May 2018, the UN Human Rights Council voted to urgently dispatch an independent, international Commission of Inquiry to investigate suspected violations of international law in the context of the protests in Gaza, including attacks on Palestinian health workers.

The Commission of Inquiry is due to report its findings to the Council on 18 March. On 22 March, Member States, including the UK, will have an opportunity to vote on a resolution supporting the implementation of the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations. These recommendations emphasise the need to take practical steps to ensure that those responsible for violations are held to account through appropriate, fair and independent national or international criminal justice mechanisms, and that effective remedy is provided to victims.

The UK’s principled stance against attacks on healthcare: time to put words into action

In 2016, the UK championed the passing of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2286, condemning attacks on health services in conflicts around the world, demanding that states comply with international humanitarian and human rights law which prohibits such violations, and urging states to take proactive steps to hold perpetrators to account.

Despite this principled position, the UK abstained at the vote to create the Commission of Inquiry. In its Explanation of Vote it called on Israel to “carry out what must be a transparent inquiry into the IDF’s conduct at the border [sic] fence and to demonstrate how this will achieve a sufficient level of independence.” The UK further states that “[t]his investigation should include international members.”

Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem called the internal Israeli military probe into its own killings in Gaza “part of the whitewashing toolkit.”

There has been no indication that a sufficiently independent “international element” has been added to internal Israeli investigations.

The UK states that it “continues to call on all parties to engage constructively with the UN Human Rights Council and its mechanisms”. In 2015, the UK backed a similar resolution supporting the implementation of the recommendations of the UN Commission of Inquiry that investigated the 2014 military offensive on Gaza, calling on parties to cooperate with the International Criminal Court’s preliminary examination.

Supporting the “accountability resolution” at this Human Rights Council session would therefore be consistent with the UK’s past actions.

Israel’s decade of attacks, violations and obstructions against Palestinian health workers carried out with impunity demonstrates an unwillingness or inability to hold its forces to account.

The UK must put its principled stance into practice, and support accountability for attacks on health workers in Gaza at the Human Rights Council. Failing to do so would expose a dangerous double standard.

MAP’s statement makes the following six recommendations to states:

  • Recognise the damaging impact of repeated, widespread attacks on healthcare services and personnel in the occupied Palestinian territory, carried out with impunity, on the rights and welfare of Palestinian people
  • Reiterate a commitment to strengthening international law pertaining to respect for and protection of medical personnel and facilities in the context of the occupied Palestinian territory, including by promoting adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 2286 (2016)
  • Recognise the extremely poor compliance of Israeli domestic investigations and accountability processes with international law, plus lack of redress for victims, and raise relevant concerns in bilateral and multilateral relations
  • Call on Israel and the Palestinian authorities in Gaza to cooperate with and facilitate access to Gaza for UN Commissions of Inquiry, UN Special Procedures, officials of the International Criminal Court, and independent human rights and forensics experts, to enable a thorough and impartial assessment of the facts regarding the conduct of all parties
  • Urge Israel and all parties to conduct timely, impartial and effective criminal investigations, to international standards of independence, impartiality, thoroughness and transparency, into suspected violation of international humanitarian and human rights law, and ensure that accountability and justice is secured for proven criminal wrongdoing
  • Promote the establishment of international mechanisms to monitor and assess breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law and the effectiveness of steps taken to ensure accountability and justice in accordance with international law standards

To read MAP’s second written statement to the Human Rights Council detailing the deaths and devastating injuries resulting from Israel’s violent response to the protests in Gaza, as well as the wider challenges of providing healthcare amid the 12-year illegal closure of Gaza click here.