Instead of posting our “Weekly IHL Update,” today we are sharing a short supplement to our post last week on different types of warships. One of the most important ships in international humanitarian law is the hospital ship; during armed conflict at sea, hospital ships care for sick and wounded combatants or others at sea suffering from the effects of hostilities.
A hospital ship primarily functions as a floating medical treatment facility. Most hospital ships are operated by the military forces of various countries and are intended to be used in or near war zones. Hospital ships may not be attacked or captured. If a hospital ship is in a port that falls into the hands of an enemy, the hospital ship must be permitted to leave port. Although attacking a hospital ship is a war crime, belligerent navies have the right to board such ships for inspections; hospital ships are only allowed to have weapons on board for defense purposes.
According to the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, a hospital ship violating legal restrictions, such as attacking another ship or not identifying itself as a hospital ship, must be duly warned and given a reasonable time limit to comply. If a hospital ship persists in violating the law, a naval force is entitled to capture it or take other means to enforce compliance.
Currently, the United States operates two hospital ships.
The USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) provides rapid, flexible, and mobile acute medical and surgical services to support Marine Corps Air/Ground Task Forces, Army units, and Air Force units deployed ashore, as well as naval amphibious task forces and battle forces afloat. Additionally, the USNS Mercy is shore based and provides mobile surgical hospital services to U.S. government agencies operating in disaster or conflict for humanitarian relief or care incident to these missions or peacetime military operations.
The USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) is the second Mercy-class hospital ship to join the U.S. Navy’s fleet. While its mission is similar to the USNS Mercy, the USNS Comfort is a seagoing medical treatment facility, and not shore-based. It has total patient capacity of 1000 beds and contains 12 operating rooms.