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Call for medical neutrality in war zones

Wednesday November 23rd, 2016

The world must reaffirm the importance of medical neutrality in war zones, senior doctors say today.

Inhumane attacks on health facilities are a regular occurrence, the experts say, pointing to recent attacks on hospitals in Syria and other war-torn countries.

They state in today's (23 November) BMJ Global Health that: "According to data from the World Health Organization, there have been 113 attacks in 17 countries in the first half of 2016."

"History is dotted with stories of war crimes in which civilians, patients and health personnel have been killed and health facilities destroyed by warring factions," they write.

So in 1949, 196 countries ratified the International Humanitarian Law, in which the four Geneva Conventions specifically promote medical neutrality and protection of medical services for people in war zones.

This was modified in 1977 to protect the victims of international and non-international armed conflicts, and in 2005 to adopt the Red Crystal, in countries where the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems may be objectionable.

"But over the years, war crimes have persisted with little or no definitive action by the international community to stem the tide," write Dr Soumitra Bhuyan of the University of Memphis, Tennessee, USA, writing with Dr Ikenna Ebuenyi, of King’s College London, UK.

They add: "The destruction of health facilities in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan has become a recurring issue requiring urgent action to salvage the lives of the wounded and endangered civilian populations, and the health workers in these locations who continue to stay at their job post in the face overwhelming reasons to run."

They urge the international community to "rise to the occasion and match action with words by mandating the United Nations Security Council to provide protection for health facilities in war zones and enter into dialogue with government and warring groups to respect the principles of medical neutrality in conflict areas".

Bhuyan, S. S. et al. Persisting trend in the breach of medical neutrality: a wake-up call to the international community. BMJ Global Health 23 November 2016; doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2016-000109 [abstract]

Tags: A&E | Asia | North America | UK News | World Health

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