Growing number of attacks on health workers

October 6, 2013


According to the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, a group of human rights, health professionals and other nongovernmental groups, the UN Human Rights Council should strengthen documentation and accountability for the growing number of attacks on health workers.

At a side event of the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva on 20 September, speakers from Turkey, Bahrain, and Pakistan described attacks on healthcare workers for providing care to politically unpopular groups, or because the workers witnessed human rights violations. Other recent attacks have targeted vaccination teams and ambulances. The attacks often receive little attention and no one is held accountable.

Better documentation

The panel discussion, sponsored by the governments of Norway and Switzerland, and co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, identified the need for greater documentation of attacks, investigations, and accountability. Speakers urged the Human Rights Council to collaborate with other United Nations agencies to develop strategies to ensure the availability, safety, and security of healthcare workers in situations of violence.

The example of Turkey

A new report by IFHHRO member Physicians for Human Rights confirms that Turkish authorities deliberately targeted health workers who gave medical help to antigovernment protesters injured during clashes with authorities in June 2013. Turkey is currently debating a bill that would criminalise improvised emergency care that was not authorised by the government. As a result, in future, doctors will be fined or imprisoned for responding to the needs of injured protesters on the streets. The report quotes several doctors saying that they were attacked by police while trying to treat protesters. 

“Not only did Turkish authorities intentionally target emergency health centers and doctors treating the wounded, but the government is now attempting to turn emergency medical care into a crime,” said Dr. Michele Heisler, co-author of the report. “The Ministry of Health’s misguided bill, which would violate articles in the country’s own penal code, must be blocked, so that health workers can provide unbiased emergency medical care to those in need without fear.”


UN: End Impunity for Attacks on Health Workers, Human Rights Council Should Press Countries for Action. Human Rights Watch website, 20 September 2013

PHR Documents Unlawful Use of Force and Tear Gas and Attacks on Medical Community in Turkey. PHR website, September 2013