Around the World, Health Workers under Attack


This post originally appeared on Human Rights Watch’s website.

In Syria, doctors have fled in droves, fearful of adding to the casualties in the country’s bloody civil war. In Pakistan, vaccinators are gunned down by militants. In Bahrain, physicians who treat protesters are thrown in jail. Despite universally recognized international law protecting medical workers in conflict situations, increasingly, the people on the front line of health care are becoming targets.

At a side event of the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva today, speakers from Turkey, Bahrain, and Pakistan described attacks on healthcare workers for providing care to politically unpopular groups, or because the workers witnessed human rights violations. Other recent attacks have targeted vaccination teams and ambulances. The attackers are rarely brought to justice.

“When health workers and hospitals are attacked, people are prevented from getting medical care or are afraid to seek treatment, and trained professionals flee areas where they are urgently needed,” said Leonard Rubenstein, chairman of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, made up of human rights, health professional and other groups. “If people who attack healthcare workers get away with it, the consequence can be the collapse of the health system and even greater suffering.”

Some progress has been made. Along with international humanitarian law guaranteeing freedom from interference with health care, our understanding of the right to health under international human rights law is far clearer than in the past. But more needs to be done to protect health workers.

Speakers called on the Human Rights Council to press member countries to assure that their healthcare services are protected against assaults or interference and to repeal laws that penalize people who provide health care to certain people based on their ethnicity or political views. 

Dr. Vincent Iacopino, senior medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights, summed it up: “We have to put mechanisms in place so that courageous doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and others are never again attacked for doing their job of caring for vulnerable people.”

Joseph Amon is the director of the health and human rights program at Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch is a steering committee member of Safeguarding Health in Conflict.