when conflict health becomes military tactic?

From refugee situations to border disputes, health crises that arise as a result of conflict are unfortunately quite common. Conflict health disrupts the ways that people access resources like food, water, and medicine. On the other hand, conflict health creates the circumstances where diseases spread, people are needlessly killed, and others are critically injured. These horrible results of conflict health are compounded by the destruction of infrastructure: roads, hospitals, etc.

What happens when conflict health becomes a military tactic? Since Medieval times (and before) armies attacking opposing castles would launch disease infested animal carcasses over the walls. In the 1800s, the US military gave smallpox blankets to indigenous North American groups in order to destroy their health and kill their populations. During apartheid in southern Africa, South African forces supporting RENAMO in Mozambique targeted health clinics and hospitals to cripple the health and infrastructure of the population.

During the World Wars, medics and vehicles with a red cross weren’t supposed to be targeted because they weren’t carrying out military actions. I had thought this idea was fairly widespread and that mercy was shown to health providers in times of conflict.

Recently, we have seen the complete opposite during the Libyan conflict. Libya’s pro-Gadhafi forces have targeted those attempting to provide health services to protestors and the population. In the early days of the protests it was reported that the military was entering the hospital to dump out blood supplies so that injured protestors could not be saved. In similar actions, Red Crescent medics and ambulances have been shot at, Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, said:

“This was a deliberate attack on medical professionals, who were wearing full medical uniform and arrived in two clearly marked Red Crescent ambulances.”

Ambulances have been bombed, The rebel spokesman confirmed that

“Gaddafi’s forces shoot three ambulances, killing two drivers.”

The Misrata hospital has been a flash point of intense shelling and fighting by Libyan forces. The hospital has been bombed from the air, shelled by tanks, and overrun by pro-Gadhafi troops.One person inside said,

“heavy tanks for Gadhafi troops start attacking the hospital – the bombs falling here 20 meters (66 feet) around us.”

The health of the Libyan people is under seige as much as the repressive dictatorship of Gadhafi. Many countries including Egypt, Morocco, and the UAE have established military field hospitals to be able to help the wounded who are leaving Libya. UNICEF is deeply concerned about the impact of the conflict on children and has distributed emergency health kits which contain enough drugs, medical supplies and basic medical equipment to cover the needs of 60,000 persons.

The conflict in Libya, through the blatant attacks on health providers and facilities, has demonstrated a new level of disregard for the basic health of a population. This is an obvious example that Gadhafi must be removed from power if the Libyan people are to regain their health and livelihoods.

Featured on the Americans for Informed Democracy Blog, where I’m writing as a Global Health Analyst.

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