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Finally, a Major Step Forward in Protecting Health Workers and Facilities

Despite firm standards rooted in the Geneva Conventions to protect health facilities, health workers, and the patients served during armed conflict, and to enable health professionals to act consistently with their ethical obligations, assaults on and interference with health functions are all too common in war. Aside from the human toll they take, these attacks often compromise the ability to deliver care to populations in great need, impede efforts to reconstruct health systems after war, and lead to the flight of health workers whose presence in a time of great social stress is essential.

The international community has taken few steps to provide guidance to promote compliance with the law, or to assess and report on violations in a uniform and comprehensive manner. Sound methodologies for data collection about these assaults have not been developed. The lack of systematic reporting and documentation of these violations contributes to continued disregard for an established and internationally recognized legal framework of protection. Mechanisms to encourage compliance with these international norms are needed as a first step in preserving critical health services in conflict settings.

That’s why I’m glad to say that on January 21, at a meeting of its 34-member Executive Board, the World Health Organization (WHO) took a major step toward the protection of health workers, health facilities, health transports, and patients during armed conflicts. It passed a resolution on the WHO’s role in humanitarian emergencies and included language calling on the WHO’s director general:

to provide leadership at the global level in developing methods for systematic collection and disseminationof data on attacks on health facilities, health workers, health transports, and patients in complex humanitarian emergencies, in coordination with other relevant United Nations bodies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, avoiding duplication of efforts[.]

The resolution’s lead sponsors were the United States, the European Union (with Finland as the lead), and Japan. The resolution will now go to the World Health Assembly, consisting of all member states of the WHO, for consideration at its meeting in May 2012.

I made a statement to the board on behalf of the World Medical Association and all the groups that signed it, including The Center for Public Health and Human Rights (where I’m a senior scholar), and IntraHealth International. During the meeting, representatives from the US and Norway spoke to the importance of action to protect health workers and facilities, and the WHO’s Director General Margaret Chan spoke to the issue as well.

The resolution is an important step toward creating the evidence base for protection of health workers during conflicts and accountability for perpetrators.