Civilians in hospitals, schools, churches and mosques are increasingly put in harm's way in armed conflicts around the world, including in Syria, according to the head of the Swiss-run Red Cross.
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said in Geneva on Thursday his organisation was gravely worried about the rising misuse of medical facilities and educational and religious centres in armed conflicts in Syria and other nations.
Presenting the ICRC’s annual report for 2012, he added that along with the "weaponisation of medical facilities", similar misuse of schools, churches and mosques was one of the most worrying trends during the past year.
"Hospitals, but also schools, churches, mosques are attacked and some groups and fighters misuse [those buildings] and other religious places to bring arms into those installations, which make them again susceptible to military attack," he said.
Armed forces and rebels in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Mali and other nations have been bringing arms into such places.
“Not happening by chance”
Maurer said the ICRC had compiled data on a “relatively big sample of cases” involving attacks on medical facilities, which are among the most serious patterns of violations of international humanitarian law in the conflict zones.
"I am not of the opinion that these patterns are happening by chance," he said, attributing the patterns to all sides gaining more encouragement to win rather than to reach a political settlement.
National security forces and armed rebels were the biggest culprits, according to Red Cross data.
In 2012, the ICRC documented 921 violent incidents involving attacks or threats against healthcare workers, wounded and sick people, and medical facilities and vehicles. About 60 per cent were directed against doctors, nurses and paramedics.
The Red Cross found two more disturbing trends: "follow-up attacks" on first aid providers and violent disruption of vaccination campaigns.
More than nine of every ten such cases involved local healthcare providers; most of the other cases were directed against international healthcare providers.
Maurer said he was also concerned about the number of attacks against ICRC staff. One delegate was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan, an employee was killed in Yemen, while staff security was threatened in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Somalia.
“We’re facing a dilemma,” Maurer admitted. “We have to balance victims’ needs with the necessity to guarantee our employees’ security.”
The Red Cross president also emphasised that the annual report, which focuses on the people it assisted, showed an alarming and widening gap between the staggering needs of millions of people suffering from Syria's civil war and the world's ability to help them.
Major conflicts like the one in Syria also tend to last longer, which is “grinding down the civilian population year after year. There is an inability to cope with the demands”.
The Red Cross, whose biggest donors are the United States, Switzerland, the European Commission and Britain, spent a total of CHF1.1 billion ($1.2 billion) last year.
It says Syria will eclipse Afghanistan as its biggest operation by spending in 2013.
"Aid organisations tried to do their best to get to people in Syria and to respond to those needs," Maurer said. "There is a huge discrepancy between the ability to cope with the Syrian crisis and the escalating speed at which the demands in Syria are growing. And this gap continues to widen as we speak."
swissinfo.ch and agencies