In our media-savvy world, YouTube and other social media outlets provide near instant coverage of violent attacks across the globe, galvanizing shock and outrage among a broad-range of viewers. But not all deaths are caused by conventional weapons that can be captured on camera.
Last week, Radio Dabanga, an independent radio station in Darfur, reported the expulsion of Merlin, a British humanitarian organization working in Sudan. According to Sudanese officials, Merlin’s merger with Save the Children in July 2013 allegedly rendered the organization illegal under Sudan’s law. Merlin’s work supported 28 permanent medical facilities and numerous mobile clinics, providing medical services for approximately 600,000 Darfuris. Merlin is the third NGO in Darfur to be shut down in the past three months. The expulsions are deliberate attempts to block care for Darfuris.
Unfortunately, the Sudanese government is not unique in targeting medical NGOs as a means of inflicting suffering on specific ethnic or religious groups. In late February, the government of Burma issued an order for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to immediately cease all work after MSF reported treating injuries from a Muslim massacre in January. Although the order was reversed in most parts of the country, MSF was not allowed to resume its operations in Rakhine State, where the majority of the Muslim Rohingya minority lives. As a result, approximately 750,000 people – mostly Rohingya, many of whom are internally displaced – have not received medical care in nearly two months.
In both Sudan and Burma, NGOs are targeted as part of a larger strategy to not only deprive already persecuted communities of basic necessities for survival, but also to remove outside observers who could act as witnesses to the human rights violations and abuse perpetrated against minority populations. Both Merlin and MSF adhere to the principle of medical neutrality, which mandates treating the sick and injured regardless of politics, race, or religion. Without the life-saving care of organizations like Merlin and MSF, thousands of vulnerable and marginalized individuals, including children, are at risk of death from preventable diseases or terminal illnesses.
Withholding medical and humanitarian assistance can amount to crimes against humanity, which is why PHR documents violations of medical neutrality around the world. In our condemnation of the more visceral violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, we must not forget the equal harm that occurs when medical professionals are not allowed to carry out their daily work.