This week, health ministers from around the world will meet in Geneva. One item on their agenda is to review progress in the effort to better monitor attacks against health care workers, patients, and hospitals.
Sadly, there will be no shortage of recent examples pointing to the urgency of their task.
One month ago, on April 15, opposition forces in South Sudan attacked a hospital. Some patients were killed as they lay in their beds.
This was not an isolated incident: clinics and hospitals in Bentiu, in Unity State, Malakal, in Upper Nile State, and Bor, in Jonglei state, have all been attacked, burned, and looted. South Sudanese forces have also attacked hospitals in Unity and Jonglei states.
The issue is not unique to South Sudan. In 2012 and 2013, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) identified 1,809 specific incidents in 23 countries in which violence was used against patients, health workers, ambulances, or medical facilities.
Last week, Human Rights Watch and the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition released a joint report documenting recent attacks against health care in countries around the world. For example, in Nigeria, three polio workers were abducted in March 2014, and in Pakistan more than 60 polio vaccinators have been killed. After repeated attacks in Somalia, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was forced to end its 22-year operation of providing medical services. One-and-a-half million people in the country now lack access to health care.
The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, or patients in an armed conflict is a war crime. It also destabilizes already fragile health systems, forcing patients to forgo care. At this week’s meeting one issue on the agenda is to review progress on a resolution passed in 2012 to improve monitoring of attacks on health. Since the resolution was passed, there have been some positive steps, and the issue of attacks on health workers and facilities has gotten a little more global attention.
However, much more needs to be done. Governments need to implement security and legal protections for health workers so they can continue to do their jobs without fearing for their lives. There needs to be stronger accountability for those responsible for the attacks. Moreover, governments should repeal laws that criminalize and prevent doctors from providing medical services to opposition forces, as has occurred in Turkey and Bahrain.
The escalating level of attacks on health workers and facilities is a critical human rights issue that deserves attention and response. Yet, until the international community takes a stronger stand to protect health care workers, vulnerable populations around the world will continue to have their right to health threatened.