UN General Assembly Leadership a Vital Step toward Protecting Access to Health Care

11/04/2014
Damaged ambulance

Coalition urges support for a UN General Assembly resolution proposed by the Global Health and Foreign Policy Group

The global community has increasingly recognized the imperative of fulfilling the right to health throughout the world. Yet one key area—the security of access to health care when it is threatened by violence—has been largely neglected. The Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition therefore welcomes a proposed resolution to the UN General Assembly drafted by the Global Health and Foreign Policy Group, consisting of Norway (chair this year), Brazil, France, Indonesia, Senegal, South Africa, and Thailand, designed to respect and protect health care and health workers in all situations.  

There is no denying the enormous scope of the problem of violence against health care, as shown in the coalition’s 2014 report. Shelling, burning, looting, and bombing of health facilities, arrest and prosecution of health workers for providing impartial medical care, obstruction of transport of patients to health facilities, and restrictions of access to health care on account of insecurity have been documented in every part of the world. The impacts of violence and destruction have long-term impacts on access to care and population health, especially for vulnerable people including children. It also limits the capacity to deal with epidemics, as demonstrated in Liberia, where the looting or destruction of more than 80% of its public health facilities and the flight of physicians and nurses during its civil war left the health system too weak to respond when Ebola struck.

Notably, the international community has taken some important steps to address the problem, and this resolution parlays to the natural next step for the community. The World Health Assembly has required WHO to provide global leadership in developing methods to document attacks on health workers, facilities, patients and transports in complex emergencies. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health issued a report on the right to health in conflict, showing how human rights law applies to the problem. The 2014 Secretary General’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict issued guidance for its investigations of attacks on schools and hospitals. The International Committee of the Red Cross has convened representatives of states, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and experts to make recommendations for pragmatic means to improve the security of health care. The voice of the General Assembly as the key institution of the international community is needed to affirm the norm of protection and lay the groundwork for prevention.  

We urge support for a General Assembly resolution proposed by the Global Health and Foreign Policy Group. We believe the following are essential for inclusion in the resolution:

  • A call on states and armed groups to respect and protect health personnel facilities, personnel transports, and patients in all circumstances, including respect for the integrity of medical and health personnel in carrying out their duties in line with their respective professional codes of ethics.
  • A call on states, in cooperation with international organizations, to take preventive, protection and accountability measure to ensure the safety and protection of health personnel, facilities, patients and transports.
  • An invitation to UN agencies to take proactive measures to ensure the safety of medical and health personnel, transports, facilities and patients through prevention, protection and accountability activities within their respective mandates, such as systematic collection of relevant data, research, responding to requests by states for technical co-operation, and reporting.

The Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition consists of more than 30 humanitarian, provider, human rights, and civil society organizations dedicated to promoting the security of health workers and services.