Friday, December 7, 2012

NATO troops attack Afghan health clinic

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan claims that NATO and Afghan troops stormed their clinic in Wardak province, damaged doors, windows, and medical equipment. They then used the center as a jail and military command center.
The Swedish Committee said that the troops were dropped off by helicopters and headed straight to the clinic which is only a few dozen miles south-west of Kabul. Not only did the troops knock down a wall to enter the building and damage doors, examination beds and other equipment, they detained clinical staff and civilians inside. During the next few days they brought several hundred prisoners through the clinic, using it as a jail, a logistics hub, and for mortar fire. All these actions are in contravention of the Geneva conventions that protect medical facilities. Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer, said
:"The protection of medical persons and facilities, and respect for their neutrality was one of the founding principles of international humanitarian law.This latest incident is a serious violation … if true, it's incredible to me that they not only raided this clinic but that [Nato] command allowed them to continue occupying it for days afterwards."
Andreas Stefansson, director of medical services for the Committee said that this was the worst assault on their facilities since the civil war more than a decade ago:
"I can't recall when we have had a clear-cut occupation of a clinic for several days. We'd have to go back to the 1990s where you'd have warring groups that would kick out the medical staff and take over the whole building."
Afghanistan suffers from a severe shortage of health care. It is just one of three countries where polio is still endemic. One in five children will not reach their fifth birthday. In the southern provinces malnutrition is rampant among infants. Stefansson complained that groups such as his found that their work was often undermined by abuse of their buildings and staff by Afghan forces and Nato-led ISAF forces as well. Stefansson said
:"Most NGOs who deliver health care in this country experience this almost on a monthly basis; that there are breaches in different provinces, where the Afghan National Army, or ISAF, or special forces basically don't show the level of respect they should for health facilities. We are getting quite fed up with it."
A common problem is troops barging into the hospital searching for wounded insurgents, demanding medical records and harassing doctors for treating suspected Taliban members. At times military and police set up headquarters in compounds housing clinics or hospitals. The medical facilities are caught in crossfire in insurgent attacks. The medical facilities are even used on occasion as cover. Insurgents often target health care facilities, including truck bombs, and even suicide bombers. The combination of NATO tactics and Taliban attacks makes Afghans fearful of seeking medical help even where it exists. Stefansson noted
:"It puts us in jeopardy because [local people] of course question the neutrality of the health care delivered, and it also puts us in problems with opposition groups who believe we have alternative agendas."
The Swedish Committee met with ISAF commanders about the takeover of their clinic. The commanders acknowledged that the action violated international laws but that it was a mistake and that they would take action to see that this did not happen again. ISAF confirmed that the meeting took place but claimed that the ISAF respected the Geneva conventions and that the occupation of the clinic was unintentional. ISAF did not respond to a request for further comment on the incident.


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