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Hospital Bombings: Empirical and Theoretical Fallacies of Those Rejecting a Ban

Published on August 16, 2019        Author:  and

The argument we advance in our recent EJIL Article, ‘‘Hospital Shields’ and the Limits of International Law’, emerged from analysis of empirical data showing how, during the past several years, hospitals were being bombed on a daily basis. Comparing these attacks with official statements released by actors suspected of bombing hospitals, we discovered that one of the recurrent arguments used to legitimise the strikes was that the facilities had been transformed into ‘hospital shields’ and used to conceal military targets. We then decided to reconstruct the history of hospital bombings and found that since 1911 — the first time medical units were bombed from the air — belligerents have consistently justified aerial strikes by claiming that the medical units were being used to hide combatants or harbour weapons.  

This revelation led us to examine in detail the historical development of the legal clauses dealing with the protection of medical units in armed conflicts. Our analysis revealed that the clauses include a number of exceptions that have allowed belligerents to assert that the bombing was carried out in accordance with IHL. We argue that belligerents can do this since hospitals occupy a spatial and legal threshold during armed conflict, and that IHL, which is informed by the rigid distinction between combatants and noncombatants, does not have the vocabulary to deal with liminal people and objects. This, we maintain, enables belligerents to use the law to justify the attacks.  

Our assumption throughout the paper is that IHL is subject to constant interpretation and reinterpretation, and that the way states interpret the law — even if we disagree with their interpretation — helps to establish the law’s meaning. International law is, after all, shaped by states, and through their practices, manuals and utterances they help determine the interpretation of its clauses. Hence, the fact that for over a century many states, among them the most powerful ones, have justified the bombing of hospitals by claiming that they were used as shields is not something we can dismiss by simply claiming that they are misinterpreting the law. After all, those very states introduced the hospital shields exception.  Read the rest of this entry…