WHO Director General Urged to Condemn Violence Against Health Professionals

(16.05.2013) As Ministers and global health leaders gather in Geneva for next week's World Health Assembly, Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organisation, has been urged to use her opening address at the Assembly to condemn the continuing violence against health personnel in Syria.

In a letter from the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, a consortium of health professional associations, health providers, human rights groups and supported by the World Medical Association, Dr. Chan has been urged to make ‘a forceful statement condemning persistent and targeted attacks on doctors, nurses, emergency medical personnel and other health workers, particularly in Syria, which are taking place at an unprecedented level.' 

The letter, from Leonard S. Rubenstein, Chair of the Coalition, refers to this week's report from the International Committee of the Red Cross detailing at least 921 violent incidents against health-care personnel, infrastructure and wounded or sick people that took place in 2012. 

It adds: ‘According to the most recent reports, 130 doctors, and about the same number of medical aid workers and nurses, have been killed in the Syria conflict, mostly by forces affiliated with the government. More than 475 doctors have been jailed. The World Health Organisation's situation reports show that two thirds of Syria's hospitals have been damaged and a third are not functioning at all. 

‘According to the UN Independent Commission on the Syrian Arab Republic, many doctors, nurses, emergency medical workers and hospitals have been specifically targeted by Syrian government forces and planes. According to the Commission, “The deliberate targeting of medical personnel and hospitals, and the denial of medical access, has been one of the most alarming features of the conflict.” There have been limited reports of opposition forces using medical facilities for military purposes.'

The letter says that respect for and protection of health services is one of the core values of international humanitarian law and the human right to health. The provision of health care to all regardless of gender, religion, politics or any factor other than medical need is a core principle of health care ethics. Despite this, in Syria, health personnel are apparently considered legitimate targets because they provide medical care to all in need, including the enemy. 

Mr Rubenstein adds: ‘We in the international health community have an obligation to speak out to protect the non-discriminatory provision of health care to those in medical need…. we urge you to use your opening address to condemn the failure to respect health workers and facilities in Syria, making clear to the world that health services to people in need must be supported, not attacked.'