As the dust settles in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, with an agreement between the government and opposition groups, many questions remain. Will there be an independent investigation into the government’s tactics to put down the protests, including the reported use of snipers, which violate the principles on use of force? Did the government use provocateurs to justify attacking largely peaceful demonstrators? And will there be an investigation into allegations that government security forces targeted medics during the protests that took place over the last 12 weeks?
The protests in Ukraine triggered clashes between law enforcement and members of opposition groups that resulted in an unknown number of deaths of both police officers and protestors. Throughout the demonstrations and clashes, medics were on the sidelines waiting to assist those who were wounded. But in a case of déjà vu, it appears that security forces decided to deliberately target those who were saving lives. Medical workers who were targeted said they were wearing clothes with clearly visible red crosses, the widely recognized symbol of neutrality.
Under the principles on the use of force by law enforcement, police have the right to defend themselves when they are facing violent protests. However, even if some of the protestors turned to violence, police must still use restraint, and any use of force must be proportionate. Furthermore, the police must “ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment.” Directly targeting medical service providers does just the contrary.
What is being reported from Ukraine echoes what Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has recently documented in other countries where governments turn on largely peaceful protests and then target doctors and medics who try to help the wounded.
In Bahrain, in the aftermath of protests in which regime forces shot and killed protestors, the government began a systematic and targeted assault on doctors. They were detained, tortured, and subjected to false charges and sham trials. After a public outcry, many of the doctors were released but three medical professionals remain in prison. In Turkey, doctors who treated protesters wounded by security forces intent on driving them from Gezi Park were in some cases attacked by the police, threatened with the revocation of their license to practice medicine, and are now the subject of a newly enacted law that seeks to criminalize emergency medical care.
The principle of medical neutrality is wholly consistent with the ethical obligations of doctors to provide medical care to those in need regardless of political affiliation, ethnicity, religion, gender, class, or other factors.
In a short-sighted attempt to deter doctors, nurses, and other medical service providers from fulfilling their role of saving lives, governments have violated international standards and contributed to the politicization and – in some cases – the collapse of health care systems around the world.