For Immediate Release
A resolution passed last week (pdf) by the United Nations General Assembly recognizes for the first time the severity of attacks on health workers, facilities, and patients in all circumstances, and demands respect by States for provisions of medical ethics and human rights law, as well as international humanitarian law, said the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition.
The resolution, with 62 co-sponsors, urges States to take immediate steps to ensure health workers in all countries are protected from violence, whether in armed conflict or in times of peace, including:
- Respecting the integrity of medical and health personnel in carrying out their duties in line with their respective professional codes of ethics and scope of practice
- Respecting the provisions of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including the right to the highest attainable standard of health, in protecting health workers from obstruction, threats, and physical attack
- Promoting equal access to health services
- Developing preventive measures to enhance and promote the safety and protection of health workers, including norms for marking ambulances, training health workers and others, measures for physical protection, national legal frameworks for protection, and collection of data on attacks on obstruction, threats, and physical attacks on health workers
“This resolution is a milestone in the protection of health workers and patients throughout the world,” said Leonard Rubenstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Chair of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. “It recognizes the protection of health care as a human right everywhere, at all times, and that States must be proactive in assuring it.”
Although the UN General Assembly has previously addressed the need to protect humanitarian aid workers, this is the first time it has spoken to the problem of violence against all health workers, including those practicing locally. It comes at a time when attacks against vaccinators, doctors, nurses, community health workers, and other health providers have reached devastating heights—as witnessed most recently in Pakistan, South Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Turkey, Bahrain, and Guinea. In Syria alone, Physicians for Human Rights has documented more than 200 deliberate attacks on medical facilities and more than 575 deaths of medical professionals since the start of the conflict.
“With this resolution, there can be no claims that norms of the international community are not clear. Attacks on health workers and health facilities are grave violations of human rights and international law and must be respected both in war and peacetime,” said Susannah Sirkin, Director of International Policy and Partnerships at Physicians for Human Rights and a member of the Steering Committee of the Coalition.
The resolution was drafted by the Global Health and Foreign Policy Group under the leadership of Norway, chair this year, along with Brazil, France, Indonesia, Senegal, South Africa, and Thailand.
Widespread under-reporting of attacks against health workers means that we are likely aware of only a fraction of abuses around the world. To combat this, the resolution reaffirms the important role the World Health Organization, United Nations, NGOs, and other actors can play in systematically collecting data on attacks against health workers and facilities, and urges Member States, in cooperation with others, to undertake this important work.
“The global health workforce deficit is impeding the world from achieving global health targets; the protection of health workers and facilities, especially in the midst of conflicts, is essential in ensuring equitable access to care,” said Laura Hoemeke, IntraHealth International’s Director of Communications and Advocacy. “When health workers don’t see their workplace as a safe haven, not only are they fearful of going there, but they also may influence young people considering careers in health to rethink their options.”
The power of this UN resolution lies in its recognition that attacks against health impede not only health service delivery in the short term, but lead to long-term chronic health workforce shortages and weakened public health systems. It is a game-changing tool advocates can now use to urge States, international bodies, and other actors to recognize the protection of health workers as a central and indispensable global health priority.
As Dr. Margaret Mungherera, former President of the Uganda Medical Association and immediate past president of the World Medical Association, asserted at a breakfast panel about the resolution, “I know it will make a difference in the strengthening of health systems so such countries are better able to cope with the huge disease burden related to conflict.”
About the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition
The Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition is a group of over 30 organizations who share a commitment to the protection of health workers, services, and infrastructure from violence. Members include notable academic institutions, international and country-level NGOs with a strong focus on human rights and/or health, relief organizations, and professional associations. The secretariat is shared by the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and IntraHealth International.
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.