Shooting the doctors


War is never glorious. It is always horrific. However carefully commanders plan a battle, it rarely shapes up the way they intend. Fear and confusion characterize the battlefield. The soldiers often suffer horrific injuries and then there is the inevitable tragedy of civilian casualties, whose numbers can often be greater than those of the combatants.

In the heat of battle, the medic and the doctor can save lives even though the victims may have suffered life-changing injuries. They are an essential part of the battlefield. And the assumption is always that medical personnel should never be targets. Vehicles bearing the Red Crescent and the Red Cross must be assumed to be carrying the wounded, even though at times this principle is dishonored, and are therefore not to be fired on. Likewise medical teams that go into civilian communities to provide care and treatment for beleaguered populations should not be attacked. They come in peace, not war.

And yet in the madness of conflict, in the bloodlust of constant violence, these basic precepts are too often being overlooked. From its Swiss headquarters, the International Committee of the Red Cross has just announced that it is largely pulling out of Afghanistan where seven of its people have been murdered in attacks this year. Six were gunned down in a group, and the seventh, a physiotherapist, was killed by a man he was treating. In both cases the Taliban proudly claimed the crimes.

Yet organizations like the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, Medecins sans Frontieres and the White Helmets in Syria are in conflict zones to treat anyone who is injured or ill. They do not concern themselves with the rightness or wrongness of the cause for which a combatant has been fighting. Their motive is purely humanitarian.

Far from being proud of destroying medical teams, the Taliban should be both ashamed and concerned, because these are the experts who one day could be working selflessly to save the lives of some of their own people. And, indeed, it goes further than this. Under its internationally-recognized charter, the Red Cross, sometimes working with the Red Crescent, will inspect prison camps where captured fighters are being held. They will bring cases of mistreatment to the attention of the holding power. Their reports are never made public. Regular armies are always uncomfortable allowing objective visits to prisoner-of-war camps, but they permit them on the basis that their own captured fighters will receive the same protection in the prison camps of their enemies.

When it comes to irregular warfare, insurgents rarely offer Red Cross access. In 2009, the Taliban for the first time allowed the ICRC to visit prisoners it held in Badghis province. But this did not become a regular feature of Afghanistan’s increasingly bitter conflict.

The Red Crescent has played a no less heroic role, not least in removing the dead and injured from the battlefield. Syria and Libya are examples of the bravery and humanity of individuals who too often have themselves been killed or injured.

Such savagery is a war crime that should be punished. But it is also madness. Highly-trained doctors and nurses do not grow on trees. It takes years of training to produce medical professionals. Murdering them murders the future health and safety of the fighters and of the people for whom they claim to be fighting.