Coalition Urges World Health Organization Director-General to Raise Awareness of Attacks on Health Workers


On May 15 the Safeguarding Health in Conflict coalition sent a letter to World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan urging her to include in her World Health Assembly opening address a forceful statement condemning attacks on doctors, nurses, emergency medical personnel, and other health workers, particularly in Syria, which are taking place at an unprecedented level.

The letter, which also has the support of the World Medical Association, called attention to a new study by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Violent Incidents Affecting Health Care, which reported that at least 921 violent incidents against health care personnel, infrastructure, and wounded or sick people took place in 2012.

According to the most recent reports, 130 doctors, and about the same number of medical aid workers and nurses, have been killed in the Syria conflict, mostly by forces affiliated with the government. More than 475 doctors have been jailed. The World Health Organization’s situation reports show that two thirds of Syria’s hospitals have been damaged and a third are not functioning at all. According to the UN Independent Commission on the Syrian Arab Republic, many doctors, nurses, emergency medical workers, and hospitals have been specifically targeted by Syrian government forces and planes. According to the Commission, “The deliberate targeting of medical personnel and hospitals, and the denial of medical access, has been one of the most alarming features of the conflict.” There have been limited reports of opposition forces using medical facilities for military purposes.

Respect for and protection of health services is one of the core values of international humanitarian law and the human right to health. The provision of health care to all regardless of gender, religion, politics or any factor other than medical need is a core principle of health care ethics. Despite this, in Syria, health personnel are apparently considered legitimate targets because they provide medical care to all in need, including the enemy. The international health community has an obligation to speak out to protect the nondiscriminatory provision of health care to those in medical need.

The letter noted appreciation for Dr. Chan’s leadership in speaking out against the arrests of doctors and nurses in Bahrain and the murder of vaccinators in Pakistan, and acknowledged how hard and effectively the World Health Organization is working to address the health crisis in Syria in circumstances that are enormously difficult.

As ministers and leaders in global health from around the world convene in Geneva for the World Health Assembly, the Safeguarding Health in Conflict coalition urged Dr. Chan to use her opening address to condemn the failure to respect health workers and facilities in Syria, making clear to the world that health services to people in need must be supported, not attacked.

The Safeguarding Health in Conflict coalition promotes respect for international humanitarian and human rights laws that relate to the safety and security of health facilities, workers, ambulances and patients during periods of armed conflict or civil violence.