Syrians inspect the wreckage at a site after Syrian government airstrikes targeted a civilian hospital in the town of Hass, southern rural Idlib, Syria, September 8, 2018.

© 2018 Anas ALkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
 
Update: On August 1, the United Nations announced that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will launch an investigation into hospital attacks in Syria. Human Rights Watch says investigators should attribute responsibility for any war crimes, make their report public, and name and shame any perpetrators.
 
Two-thirds of United Nations Security Council members have urged Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to launch an investigation into attacks on medical facilities and other humanitarian sites in Syria. He should move quickly and send a clear message to Russia, Syria and other parties to the conflict that targeting hospitals is a war crime and those responsible will be held to account.

Humanitarian groups have long contended that Russia and Syria have targeted hospitals using coordinates provided by the UN’s “deconfliction” mechanism designed to ensure their safety.

For years, the UN has encouraged humanitarian groups in Syria to share coordinates of protected sites, which are then passed on to Russia, Turkey, and the US-led coalition. But hospitals were frequently bombed after coordinates were shared. Physicians for Human Rights told the council this week that between March 2011 and July 2019, 578 attacks on at least 350 separate facilities occurred with at least 890 medical personnel killed.

Many groups, like Medecins Sans Frontieres, have ceased sharing coordinates with the UN altogether. Dozens of hospitals in northwest Syria have been attacked. UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told Security Council members this week that he asked Russia for clarification on what it does with the coordinates it receives from the UN, but Moscow has yet to respond.

The Syrian government alleges that 119 hospitals in Idlib are legitimate targets because they are being used by enemy combatants. But Lowcock expressed skepticism, and pointed out that one of the few named facilities on the Syrian list was indeed a functioning hospital supported by the UN.

A UN investigation should aim to determine whether the deconfliction mechanism has been exploited, who was responsible for attacks on protected sites, and how best to prevent future abuse of such deconfliction mechanisms. The findings should be public and shared with international bodies building case files related to serious crimes in Syria.

Guterres has generally been reluctant to use his authority to launch investigations, despite ample precedents. He has declined inquiries into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the murder of two UN experts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But Guterres now has an opportunity to reassert his authority and demonstrate that the UN will no longer unwittingly assist the commission of war crimes in Syria.