Advocating Against Attacks on Health at the United Nations: Reflections on the 51st Session of the Human Rights Council    

Last week, I was part of the delegation of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Christian DeVos, PHR’s director of research and investigations, and I were joined by our Ukrainian partner Pavlo Kovtoniuk, co-founder of the Ukrainian Healthcare Center, as we took part in the second of four weeks of this session of the HRC. 

Our team was there to deliver strong statements to world leaders to stop illegal attacks on health care in places such as Myanmar, Syria, and Ukraine, and demand accountability for human rights abuses. We provided recommendations based on years of PHR’s expert research and investigations. We met with special rapporteurs, diplomats, commissioners of inquiry, and civil society partners.   


In Myanmar, health care personnel navigate a chaotic and crooked political environment, all while struggling to get their hands on the few supplies they can to meet the demands of a population that simply can’t be met, no matter how hard they try.  

Interactive dialogues on both the oral progress report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar and on the report on Myanmar by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights were held during the Human Rights Council. PHR contributed written statements, highlighting the arrest, torture, and murder of health care personnel by military forces in Myanmar since the coup d’état in February 2021. PHR called for justice and accountability efforts to prevent and punish both these crimes and human rights abuses, including sexual violence, against the Rohingya and other ethnic minority groups by the Tatmadaw. 

Our team was there to deliver strong statements to world leaders to stop illegal attacks on health care in places such as Myanmar, Syria, and Ukraine, and demand accountability for human rights abuses.


After more than a decade, millions of Syrians in the northwest continue to race against a ticking clock, wondering if in six months’ time their last lifeline at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing will be shut for good. Families of the disappeared desperately seek answers to their loved ones’ whereabouts. Health care workers in Syria risk death daily to provide even the most rudimentary care. 

At the Human Rights Council, interactive dialogues addressing enforced or involuntary disappearances and arbitrary detention were held, as well as a session with the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. During the latter, PHR called for Member States to push publicly for actionable items contained in UN Security Council resolution 2286, to hold perpetrators of attacks on health care accountable. PHR also encouraged States to extend cross-border authorization for humanitarian aid at Bab al-Hawa for at least 12 months, calling last summer’s Security Council decision to renew for six months a disgraceful compromise. 


Ukrainians continue to suffer at the hands of the Russian army as it decimates the country’s health care facilities and personnel in the ongoing illegal invasion. During the Human Rights Council, PHR attended the interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, during which Member States and various NGOs highlighted the egregious atrocities committed by Russian troops against Ukrainians since the start of the illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. During the Item 3 General Debate, PHR demanded accountability for attacks on health care in Ukraine and encouraged Member States to push publicly for actionable items contained in resolution 2286.  

For me, the daily sessions at the HRC elicited a rollercoaster of emotions. It was quite daunting, sitting in a room filled with representatives from 47 countries, each with their own agendas, but also the ability to affect real change. Some States were known perpetrators of the very crimes PHR has spent years documenting. There were encouraging moments as I looked around at the numerous bustling NGO participants, all actively involved on the ground in dire humanitarian crises in the world. There were also moments when hope went out the door, as representatives hurled accusations at one another and avoided discussing the issues at hand.  

During these long hours of debate and discussions, I couldn’t help but think of the courageous individuals in Syria, Myanmar, and Ukraine, including health care personnel, doing everything in their power to help those around them in the midst of these deadly conflicts. And here we were, in the Palais des Nations, delivering our messages and calling, again, for concrete action, together with hundreds of colleagues.   

It was hard not to ask myself what more we could be doing. What was the point of all this conversation, if it didn’t actually get us anywhere? 

During a break, I grabbed a coffee and took my work to the back patio of the palais. One of the deputy permanent observers had the same idea and joined me for a chat. We got to talking about her 12 years’ work in Geneva, for the same mission, with the same discussions and interventions taking place session after session at the UN. The exhaustion was written clearly on her face. 

I asked her when she thought she might throw in the towel. 

She smiled. “The day I stop caring.”  

That’s how it is in this space, be it in New York or Geneva. No matter how seemingly futile and impossible, you try to reach as many people as you can to make even the smallest difference. If you’re lucky, maybe things don’t get worse, or maybe a resolution passes that addresses just one of your asks. But you keep going because for those who are living through conflict, even the little victories count. 

The efforts made all around by vocal UN Member States and numerous activists in these arenas prove to me that there really is a chance these situations we’re fighting for will eventually change for the better. We’re all doing what we can, fighting the same fights, for the same end goal. In those moments of hopelessness, when I ask why and for what, I’m reminded of these people and efforts. And like the DPO I had the pleasure to meet with, I know that we won’t stop, because we care too much.  

And so, we keep going. 

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