International Humanitarian Law - Protecting health care

*Another attack on a Médecins Sans Frontières-supported hospital occurred Feb. 15, 2016 in Syria.

On Saturday, October 3rd a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was attacked in an aerial bombing. 30 people were killed including MSF staff and patients, and dozens more were injured. The bombing made headlines and raised questions – specifically, what does International Humanitarian Law (IHL) say about hospitals?

Hospitals and Medical Transport under International Humanitarian Law:

When it comes to conflicts that are non-international (like the one currently in Afghanistan) civilian medical units and transportation are not to be made the object of attack. This protection is considered permanent but can be lost if the medical unit or transportation is used for fighting (for example, it is used to hide weapons, or is used as a location to launch an attack). Before this loss of protection becomes official, a warning must be given.

Why are medical units and transportation protected?

International Humanitarian Law exists to protect those who are not, or are no longer, participating in fighting and restricts the methods and weapons used in war. The nature of hospitals, and medical transportation, means that the patients and staff are not, or can no longer, participate in fighting – this makes them protected under IHL Targeting protected people is a violation of IHL.  

What happens if International Humanitarian Law is broken?

Commanders have a duty to make sure that their soldiers know the rules of war and to ensure respect of IHL. Those who are involved in a conflict have an obligation to start disciplinary or penal steps against those who are alleged to have committed violations as IHL. This means that governments have the obligation to take steps to hold individuals accountable for serious violations of IHL - and means that they have the responsibility to investigate and if necessary, prosecute those who are alleged to have committed these types of crimes.

What role does the Canadian Red Cross play with International Humanitarian Law?

The Canadian Red cross helps educate members of the armed forces, lawmakers, politicians and the general public about the principles of International Humanitarian Law. The Canadian Red Cross also plays a role in helping advance IHL in Canada.

Read more: 
International Humanitarian Law – protecting children
International Humanitarian Law – protecting civilians

Learn about International Humanitarian Law in a nutshell:


See your impact in action.

Sign up to receive impact updates from the Canadian Red Cross, inspirational stories from the field and be the first to hear about emergency relief efforts.

The Canadian Red Cross takes your privacy seriously. We do not distribute or sell your email address to anyone. View our privacy policy.

Blog Archives