Assaults on health-care personnel, facilities and vehicles in conflicts and violent upheavals leave millions around the world without care just when they need it most. This is the key finding of a new report presented by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at a press conference in Geneva today.
"Violence against health-care facilities and personnel must end. It's a matter of life and death," said Yves Daccord, the director-general of the ICRC.
"The human cost is staggering: civilians and fighters often die from their injuries simply because they are prevented from receiving timely medical assistance." According to Dr Robin Coupland, who led the research carried out in 16 countries across the globe, millions could be spared if the delivery of health care were more widely respected.
"The most shocking finding is that people die in large numbers not because they are direct victims of a roadside bomb or a shooting," he said. "They die because the ambulance does not get there in time, because health-care personnel are prevented from doing their work, because hospitals are themselves targets of attacks or simply because the environment is too dangerous for effective health care to be delivered." In 2009 a bomb blast in Mogadishu killed over 20 people, most of whom had just graduated from medical school.
The attack on the young doctors not only brought their lives to a premature end but also destroyed any chance that tens of thousands of people might have had of receiving medical attention in the months and years to follow. "Violence that prevents the delivery of health care is currently one of the most urgent yet overlooked humanitarian tragedies," insisted Mr Daccord. "Hospitals in Sri Lanka and Somalia have been shelled, ambulances in Libya shot at, paramedics in Colombia killed, and wounded people in Afghanistan forced to languish for hours in vehicles held up in checkpoint queues.
The issue has been staring us in the face for years. It must end." The health-care community alone cannot address the challenge. It is imperative that States, their armed forces but also others exercising authority recognize that violence that disrupts the delivery of health care is one of the most serious and widespread humanitarian challenges. "Addressing the issue effectively will require humanitarian dialogue, respect for the law and the adoption of appropriate measures by States, armed forces and non-State actors," said Mr Daccord. "The ICRC is committed to working with all concerned in order to secure effective and impartial health care." Deliberate assaults on health-care personnel, facilities and transports, as well as on the wounded and sick, violate international law. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols set out the right of the wounded and sick – combatants and civilians alike – to be respected and protected during armed conflict and to receive timely medical treatment.
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