Landmark Resolution Demands Protection of Health Workers from Violence

On December 11, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that recognizes the severity of violent attacks on health workers, facilities, and patients in all circumstances. IntraHealth International, along with several other members of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition—including Physicians for Human Rights and Save the Children—worked alongside the UN Global Health and Foreign Policy Group to build international support for this initiative.

Although the UN General Assembly has previously addressed the need to protect humanitarian aid workers, this is the first time it has spoken to the problem of violence against health workers specifically. Attacks against vaccinators, doctors, nurses, community health workers, and other health providers have reached shocking heights—as witnessed most recently in Pakistan, South Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Turkey, Bahrain, and Guinea. In Syria alone, Physicians for Human Rights has documented more than 200 deliberate attacks on medical facilities and more than 575 deaths of medical professionals since the start of the conflict.

“The global health workforce deficit is impeding the world from achieving global health targets; the protection of health workers and facilities, especially in the midst of conflicts, is essential in ensuring equitable access to care,” says Laura Hoemeke, IntraHealth’s director of communications and advocacy. 

The new resolution demands member states take immediate steps to protect health workers from violence, whether in armed conflict or in times of peace, including:

  • Respecting the integrity of medical and health personnel in carrying out their duties in line with their respective professional codes of ethics and scopes of practice
  • Respecting the provisions of international humanitarian law and international human rights law—including the right to the highest attainable standard of health—in protecting health workers from obstruction, threats, and physical attack
  • Promoting equal access to health services
  • Developing preventive measures to enhance and promote the safety and protection of health workers, including norms for marking ambulances; training health workers; measures for physical protection; national legal frameworks for protection; and collection of data on obstruction, threats, and physical attacks on health workers.

Widespread under-reporting of attacks against health workers means only a fraction of abuses around the world come to light. To combat this, the resolution reaffirms the important roles the World Health Organization, United Nations, NGOs, and others can play in systematically collecting data on attacks against health workers and facilities.

“This resolution is a milestone in the protection of health workers and patients throughout the world,” says Leonard Rubenstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and chair of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. “It recognizes the protection of health care as a human right everywhere, at all times, and that states must be proactive in assuring it.”

Advocates can now point to this resolution to urge countries, international bodies, and others to recognize the protection of health workers as a central and indispensable global health priority.

The Global Health and Foreign Policy Group under the leadership of Norway, chair this year, along with Brazil, France, Indonesia, Senegal, South Africa, and Thailand, drafted the resolution, which was cosponsored by sixty-two countries.

Read the full statement by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, a group of over 30 organizations committed to the protection of health workers, services, and infrastructure from violence. IntraHealth is a steering committee member and shares the secretariat with the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.