ResourcesPress Release

Conflicts and Crises Spawn Attacks on Health Care Worldwide

Syria is the most egregious example in a global trend

For Immediate Release


As Syrians suffer from the extreme destruction of their health care system at the hands of the military, their situation has brought increased attention to attacks on health care around the world. Health professionals, facilities, and patients are regularly targeted by violence and restrictive legislation in situations of conflict and civil unrest, according to an online, interactive world map of attacks on health published today by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

“These attacks shock the conscience. By failing to respond effectively, the world has allowed for a new normal to take hold, whereby medical care is specifically targeted, instead of protected” said Donna McKay, PHR’s executive director. “These unlawful and preventable attacks have resulted in decimated health care systems, depriving people of adequate care and making the population fearful of seeking assistance.”

PHR’s map illustrates attacks on medical personnel, patients, facilities, and transport, along with government-legislated restrictions to health care, in 20 countries experiencing armed conflict, political instability, or a national crisis. The attacks – resulting from systematic targeting by security forces and armed groups effectively using this tactic as a weapon of war, a disregard for civilian facilities during conflict, or distrust by local communities – are obstructing treatment and corroding international norms.

The assault against health care extends beyond physical violence to legislation in Syria, Burma, and Turkey that effectively criminalizes the provision of medical care to punish subsets of the population. These policies have led to insecurity for doctors and medical aid groups, legal charges and fines against doctors in Turkey, the detention and torture of hundreds of medical personnel in Syria, and a severe lack of health care for certain populations.

PHR’s interactive map was launched in conjunction with a report by Human Rights Watch and the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, released at the World Health Organization’s annual meeting of health ministers. In recognition of the increasingly acute perils faced by medical workers, the U.N. General Assembly called upon states to protect health workers in a December 2014 resolution. Nonetheless, violations continue unabated.

“While gathering in Geneva this week, ministers of health must acknowledge these egregious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and take action to stop them and hold perpetrators to account,” said Susannah Sirkin, PHR’s director of international policy.

Syria is the leading example of government forces using attacks on medical facilities and personnel as a systematic weapon to punish civilians for their presumed support of opposition groups by depriving them of access to health care. On average, a medical worker was killed every other day and a hospital was bombed every four days in Syria during 2014, PHR research shows. In April 2015, PHR documented 14 attacks on medical facilities and the killing of seven medical personnel in Syria – the largest number of attacks in one month since September 2012.

“In Syria, targeted and indiscriminate attacks, combined with vague anti-terror legislation, create a perilous situation for health personnel and aid workers and leave Syrians with nowhere to turn for health care,” said McKay. “Meanwhile, Syrians remain under siege as U.N. resolutions are ignored, with thousands of civilians bearing the brunt of the catastrophe.”

Beyond Syria, PHR found that retaliatory attacks on civilian populations were prevalent in nine other countries, all of which faced armed conflict or political instability. A broad range of rebel or extremist groups – the Taliban, the Islamic State, Somalia’s al-Shabab, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), among others – have all engaged in retaliatory looting and bombing of medical facilities and kidnapping and killing of medical personnel for perceived allegiances.

In some countries, the provision of medical treatment itself became a risk factor. Polio vaccination teams in Pakistan were repeatedly attacked, kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the Taliban, leaving 42 polio workers and related staff dead in 2014 alone. Boko Haram, the Islamist group threatening large swaths of Nigeria, has also attacked polio vaccination teams. Similarly, angry and fearful citizens facing an Ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone attacked medical personnel and facilities.

PHR sought to document patterns of attacks targeting health care, and mapped only countries where widespread attacks on health care went unaddressed by the authorities and/or posed a substantial threat to the impartial provision of health care. PHR only documented attacks on medical personnel while they were performing medical work or attacks that targeted personnel specifically for their medical work. Reports from at least seven different types of independent, non-governmental sources were reviewed in five languages.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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