The Urgent Need to Act on Syria

03/18/2015 04:15 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

Looking back on four years of conflict in Syria, the most painful realization is that inaction by the UN Security Council has created specific conditions that have allowed the conflict to expand beyond the country's borders and have seriously eroded well-established norms aimed at protecting civilians during conflict.

The deliberate targeting of civilians should have been enough to spur the Security Council to act. The wholesale bombing of hospitals and clinics, as well as the detention and killing of doctors, should have caused alarm and prompted action. The starving of Syrians into submission should have galvanized all states to take a stand against the systematic and deliberate disregard for human rights and humanitarian laws.

A conflict has never before been so well documented in real time. There is no excuse for the failure to act. The Security Council did not need more information. It did not require additional confirmation of these violations.

The toll in Syria is rising inexorably: Some 220,000 lives have been lost, half the population has been displaced, 83 percent of the lights are out, the healthcare system is devastated, and doctors are living in the crosshairs. As we have documented at Physicians for Human Rights, at least 610 medical workers have been killed, and there have been at least 233 deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on 183 medical facilities in the country. What does it take to get action on Syria?

And what are the costs of failing to do so? The kidnapping of doctors and nurses in Libya by a group affiliating itself with the self-declared Islamic State is one example of that cost. They were kidnapped and subsequently released on one condition: They must remain in Sirte and provide treatment to members of the armed group.

Doctors and other health professionals abide by ethical standards that require them to provide care to anyone in need regardless of any aspect of an individual's identity or political affiliation -- a principle known in international law as medical neutrality. The attempt to politicize the decisions doctors make in the course of performing triage, and the targeting of doctors who adhere to the principle of medical neutrality, are alarming trends.

In Syria, Bahrain, South Sudan, the Central Africa Republic, and now Libya, being a doctor is a dangerous profession, not simply because doctors take risks to reach their patients, including those in conflict zones, but because they are being targeted for prioritizing those with the most urgent medical needs. In Syria, for example, government forces have engaged in double-tap strikes. They drop a bomb in a crowded place such as a market, wait for first responders to rush to the scene to stabilize those who are hurt so that they can be evacuated to a hospital or clinic, and then bomb the responders.

If the UN Security Council does not act soon to stop the carnage and ensure that those who are responsible for these systematic violations of international standards are held accountable, there is a real danger that humanitarian law -- which aims to protect civilians in the midst of war -- will be as devastated as the health care system in Syria.

It is simple: The UN Security Council must act now to save lives, promote justice and accountability, and protect the hard-won norms that make the world safer for all.