Key Issues

Courtesy of Karen Human Rights Group

During armed conflict or civil disturbances, assaults on health facilities, health workers, and the patients they serve are all too common. Aside from the human toll they take, these attacks compromise the ability to deliver care to populations in great need, impede efforts to reconstruct health systems after war, and lead to the flight of health workers whose presence in a time of great social stress is essential. 

The risks of being a health worker on the frontline

During periods of armed conflict, health workers are at risk of:

  • Torture, abuse, kidnapping, and other human rights violations for treating patients on either side of the conflict

  • Poor mental health and well-being due to living in troubled locations with the constant threat of attack

  • Lack of supplies and vital equipment due to systematic raids

  • Forced displacement due to attacks and fear of continued violence.

These dangers contribute to critical shortages in human resources in areas where care is most needed, as well as decreased efficacy of health professionals, wastage of millions of dollars in aid, and loss of human capital through migration.

Obstructions to routine health care delivery

Assaults not only result in obstructed access to health services but pose a formidable challenge to health systems, limiting the effective operation of health systems during instability and impeding the development of health infrastructure and meeting human resources needs once stability returns.

The legal framework for protection

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977 mandate the protection of medical facilities, personnel, and patients; the humane treatment of civilians; the right of access to care; and the nondiscriminatory treatment of the ill and wounded in time of war. International Human Rights Law is the only international legal framework governing situations of internal violence and continues to apply during armed conflicts.