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Human Rights Groups Call to End Impunity for Attacks on Health Workers

UN Human Rights Council Should Press Countries for Action

For Immediate Release

The United Nations Human Rights Council should strengthen documentation and accountability for the growing number of attacks on health workers, the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, a group of human rights, health professional and other nongovernmental groups, said today.

At a side event of the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, speakers from Turkey, Bahrain, and Pakistan were among those describing attacks on health care workers for treating politically unpopular groups, or for witnessing human rights violations. Other recent attacks have targeted vaccination teams and ambulances. The attacks often receive little attention and no one is held accountable.

“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 coalition. “If people who attack health care workers get away with it, the consequence can be the collapse of the health system and even greater suffering.”

The panel discussion, sponsored by the governments of Norway and Switzerland and co-sponsored by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), identified the need for greater documentation of attacks, investigations, and accountability. Speakers urged the Human Rights Council to collaborate with other U.N. agencies to develop strategies to ensure the availability, safety and security of health care in situations of violence.

“Medical staff and facilities provide crucial services, and should never become targets or battlegrounds,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. “We have to put mechanisms in place to document attacks, and hold those responsible accountable so that courageous doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and others are never again attacked for doing their job of caring for vulnerable people.”

Speakers called for increased funding to train health professionals and to make health infrastructure safer and more secure.

“Health workers all over the world deserve protection so they can go about saving lives,” said Rula Al-Saffar, president of the Bahrain Nursing Society. “We need the Human Rights Council to act now to enable these workers to serve their patients without putting themselves in harm’s way.”

Dr. Mirzali Azhar, general secretary of the Pakistan Medical Society, said: “Volunteers supporting the health and development agenda in Pakistan are neither welcome nor safe.”

Some progress has been made in addressing attacks on and interference with health care. In 2012, the World Health Assembly mandated the World Health Organization to provide global leadership to collect data on attacks in humanitarian emergencies. The U.N. Security Council extended accountability mechanisms to protect children and education in armed conflict to include attacks on schools and hospitals. Earlier this month, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic reported on systematic attacks on medical personnel and health care institutions in the country.

Speakers at the September 20 event called on the Human Rights Council to press member countries to assure that their health care services are protected against assaults or interference by third parties, and to repeal laws that penalize providing health care based on the identity or perceived political views of the patient.

“The role of human rights law, including the right to health, as a complement to international humanitarian law in guaranteeing freedom from interference with health care, is far clearer than in the past,” said Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the Human Rights Council has an opportunity to push further, and ensure that attacks on health care are universally condemned and that those responsible for these vicious assaults are held accountable.”

Dr. Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, was also scheduled to speak at the event.

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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