Under Attack: Violence against Health Workers, Patients and Facilities
Over the past few years, the frequency and severity of attacks on health workers, patients, hospitals and clinics throughout the world have increased. In Pakistan and Nigeria, more than 70 polio vaccination workers have been killed. In Bahrain and Turkey, health workers have been arrested for providing care to individuals protesting government policies. In Syria, hundreds of patients and health workers have been arbitrarily arrested, killed and tortured, and hospitals and health clinics have been targeted and bombed. In 2012 and 2013 alone, the International Committee of the Red Cross identified 1,809 specific incidents in 23 countries in which violence was used against patients, health workers, ambulances or medical facilities.
In compliance with international humanitarian law, parties to an armed conflict must ensure the respect and protection of patients as well as health workers, facilities and transportation. It is also an obligation under human rights law for governments to ensure access, without discrimination, to primary health care.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur’s groundbreaking October 2013 report on the right to the highest attainable standard of health stressed the need to hold countries accountable for interference with the health care system and attacks on medical personnel and facilties. The report emphasized the importance of better monitoring and data collection on attacks, as well as prosecution of those responsible.
Although much remains to be done, some steps have been taken to address this issue in the past two years. The World Health Assembly passed a resolution calling for increased reporting of attacks on health care in conflict settings by the World Health Organization. The UN Security Council expanded the mandate of the Secretary General’s special representative on children in armed conflict to include reporting of attacks on medical facilities and personnel. The International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition have all recently launched campaigns highlighting attacks on health workers and facilities.
This report describes recent examples of attacks on health in order to raise attention to this issue among the global health community, the human rights community, and those responsible for the attacks. The escalating level of attacks targeted against health care must be recognized as a critical human rights issue. Global and national human rights institutions should take action to ensure that practical steps are taken to protect health workers and facilities, and protect access to health care for all who need it.