This article is a response to Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini’s thought-provoking article, ‘“Hospital Shields” and the Limits of International Law’, published in this issue. The authors advocate reforming the law to allow hospitals absolute protection, even in cases where they are also used by combatants for military purposes that are harmful to their adversary (‘shielding hospitals’). Defining the contour of the desired protection for hospitals should start with both the institutional and personal attributes justifying their special protection as well as with the empirical data relating to the prevalence of attacks on hospitals – who and what triggers them. Against this background, this reply presents the prevailing law that grants strong protection to hospitals, albeit a contingent one that may be removed in exceptional cases of their abuse. It advocates retaining the contingent protection, though with some adjustments, and argues that the suggested absolute protection – in fact, immunity – for shielding hospitals is neither feasible nor normatively desirable. It would damage the current balance and rationale of the entire body of international humanitarian law in general and have a counter-effect upon the treatment of the sick and wounded in particular. Contrary to its apparent humanitarian rationale, absolute immunity for shielding hospitals would damage their ability to function as medical institutions and allow an adversary who controls a hospital full discretion in selecting its priorities regarding the use of its space and resources and might turn the sick and wounded into a means of warfare.
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