Hospital ships are vessels designated to provide medical assistance and care to those in need. They generally operate in or near war zones providing the necessary relief to wounded soldiers of all nationalities. As such, they have traditionally been spared from attack and given special treatment under military and maritime law. But what does the law say? Can hospital ships be attacked?
Let’s find out!
If we have to give a straightforward answer to this question, it will be – “No, the hospital ships cannot be attacked as per International law, but there are some conditions which need to be fulfilled!”
Let’s discuss them in detail.
History of Hospital Ships and International Regulations
Hospital ships have existed since antiquity and were first used in the ancient Greek and Roman empires to transport wounded soldiers from the battlefield. They have been given special protection under international law and regulations throughout history. For example, the Geneva Convention of 1949 declared hospital ships to be “immune from attack” and “protected under all circumstances.” This was further clarified in the Second Protocol of 1977, which stated that “hospital ships shall be respected and protected in all circumstances, and shall not be the object of attack.”
Additionally, the US Navy has specific regulations for hospital ships which are outlined in the US Navy Regulations, Article 795, this article states that hospital ships shall not be subject to attack and that they must be respected and protected at all times.
Can Hospital Ships Be Attacked?
Given the history and international regulations outlined above, it is clear that hospital ships are generally not subject to attack, and even though no adversaries can take these ships hostage, they have the right to board the ship, search it, and take recovering soldiers as prisoners of War but not their staff.
Even though attacking hospital ships is a war crime as per International law, there are certain conditions which have to be followed by the hospital ships; otherwise even they can be attacked. It’s important that hospital ships aren’t used for any military purposes, so for transparency, they are not allowed to use encrypted means of communications otherwise they can be classified as a military object, can be given warnings to stop any military activities and even be attacked.
Legal and Ethical Implications of Attacking Hospital Ships
Attacking a hospital ship is a serious and potentially controversial act. Legally, attacking a hospital ship would violate the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties.
Ethically, it raises questions about the morality of attacking a vessel dedicated to providing medical aid and care. In addition, there are potential legal repercussions for attacking a hospital ship, depending on the circumstances.
Have there been attacks on Hospital Ships in the past?
Despite International agreements, Hospital ships have not been immune to attacks. For instance during World War II, a Japanese Kamikaze attacked USS Comfort (AH-6), killing six nurses, four surgeons and seven patients, and this is not the only instance; following are a few of many:
- During World War II only, the Red Cross hospital ship, SS Treloar, was sunk in the English Channel by a German U-boat.
- In 1940, the British hospital ship, SS Atlantis, was torpedoed off the coast of France by a German submarine, resulting in the deaths of seven crew members and 80 medical staff.
- In 1944, the Japanese hospital ship, SS Awa Maru, was sunk by an American submarine, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,000 medical staff and patients.
- In April 1945, SS Wilhelm Gustloff (which once was a hospital ship), was sunk by a Soviet submarine, resulting in the deaths of over 9,400 people.
So now you know that even though the attack on hospital ships is prohibited as per law, there have been instances when the hospital ships were attacked, and thousands of lives were lost!