Alleged use of white phosphorus and attacks on health care should be investigated and prosecuted as possible war crimes
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is deeply alarmed by reports of wide-ranging and severe human rights violations committed by Turkish forces in Syria, a devastating escalation in an eight-year conflict defined by the egregious corrosion of international human rights and humanitarian norms.
According to reports from humanitarian organizations and news media, Turkish or Turkish-aligned forces have used incendiary weapons like white phosphorous and napalm in heavily-populated civilian areas; shelled hospitals and attacked medical vehicles; committed extrajudicial killings; and caused widespread displacement of civilians, fueling an already-critical humanitarian crisis in northern Syria.
Despite a cease-fire deal announced by Turkey and Russia on Tuesday, the situation for civilians in the region remains dire.
Now under investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the alleged severe burns of civilians from white phosphorous represent a horrific development in a conflict that has already seen extensive use of illegal chemical weapons by the Syrian government. White phosphorous is extremely toxic when inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, and it burns continuously with exposure to moisture or air. Small exposures are commonly fatal. International chemical weapons treaties restrict or prohibit the use of incendiary weapons like white phosphorus in civilian areas, such as those apparently subject to attacks in Syria.
The following statement is attributed to Susannah Sirkin, director of policy at Physicians for Human Rights:
“PHR condemns in the strongest possible terms the latest onslaught on civilians in Syria, this time reportedly committed by Turkish forces. We urge all parties to the conflict to immediately cease all forms of attacks on civilians and to respect international human rights and humanitarian law. The alleged use of incendiary weapons in civilian areas, as well as attacks on health care and civilian infrastructure in Syria, should be investigated and prosecuted as possible war crimes.
“We are also profoundly aware of Turkey’s historic violations against its own Kurdish population, including attacks on health facilities in the southeast of the country. Turkey also has a long track-record of criminalizing health professionals for carrying out their duties to treat the sick and wounded without discrimination. When the Turkish Medical Association declared in a medical journal last year that ‘war is a public health problem,’ leaders from the organization were summarily arrested and detained. With this new front in Syria, President Erdoğan appears to be scaling up Turkey’s human rights violations and expanding them across the Syrian border.
“Physicians for Human Rights has documented the wholesale destruction of the Syrian health care system as a strategy of war by the Assad government and its Russian allies since the onset of the conflict in 2011. Their reprehensive conduct – from bombing hospitals to torturing health workers – has no place in this world. Turkey must not join this criminal strategy and should prevent its military from similarly attacking medical facilities, ambulances, and first-responders.
“With nearly 500,000 people displaced in northwest Syria in the past few months alone, all parties to the conflict and allied governments must assure the fundamental rights, security, and well-being of civilians and respect humanitarian norms.”
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.
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