Armed conflict

Why is armed conflict a health and human rights issue?

Armed conflict has severe negative consequences on health and human rights, with women and children especially vulnerable to abuse during times of war. As explained by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), armed conflict increases the risk of human rights violations, such as harassment, displacement, violent attacks, rape or murder.[1] Currently, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that the health and human rights of approximately 12.4 million people, have been affected by conflict or persecution.[2]

What are the issues?

Some of the violations of the right to health and other human rights that have been reported in areas affected by conflict include the:

  • Attacks on health facilities and targeted shelling of hospitals, clinics and health centers
  • Confiscation of medicines, medical equipment or health products by armed groups
  • Obstruction of health facilities by blocking roads, imposing checkpoints and other methods
  • Arrest, assault or intimidation of health workers for fulfilling their ethical duty to provide health services impartially
  • Restrictions on health services available to individuals or groups from an opposing side (discrimination)
  • Use of physical or psychological torture, which can be characterized by the withholding of food or water, being forced to stand, sleep deprivation, or being subjected to high-level noise [3]

What are the relevant global sources?

Both international human rights law and international humanitarian law protect against the violations of health and human rights during instances of armed conflict or war.[4] One of the most important legal instruments is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the rights to: physical integrity, in the form of the right to life and freedom from torture and slavery; liberty and security of the person, in the form of freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; prohibition of any propaganda for war, of national or religious hatred, incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence; and non-discrimination, minority rights and equality before the law.

What can health workers do?

Health workers based outside of conflict-affected areas can assist in a variety of ways. According to Human Rights Watch, health workers can help train colleagues based in conflict-affected areas and lobby their governments to ensure health workers are protected from attacks.[5] They can also help analyze health-related data collected in areas affected by conflict, to bolster important surveillance programs and ensure the continuity of health reporting.

In some countries, health workers can train police and military who will be stationed in areas affected by conflict. Key training topics may include: respect and protection of health services; rights and responsibilities of medical personnel, and an overview of health workers’ ethical duty of impartiality.[6]

This page was written by Tara Ornstein in January 2018.


[1] MSF, Armed Conflict. Geneva, 2017. 

[2] UNHCR, Global Trends in Forced Displacement in 2015. Geneva, 2016.

[3] K. Footer & L. Rubenstein, A human rights approach to healthcare in conflict. ICRC. Geneva, 2014. 

[4] Icelandic Centre for Human Rights, Human Rights and Conflict. Reykjavik, 2017. 

[5] UNHCR, International Legal Protection of Human Rights in Armed Conflict. Geneva, 2011.

[6] HRW, Safeguarding Health in Conflict. New York, 2015. 



Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Impunity Must End: Attacks on Health in 23 Countries in Conflict in 2016 (2017)
The Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition

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Type of resource: Books and reports

Protecting Children Affected by Armed Violence in the Community (2016)
United Nations

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Type of resource: Books and reports

Call to Action: Bellagio Conference on Protection of Health Workers, Patients, and Facilities in Times of Violence (2014)
Center for Public Health and Human Rights of Johns Hopkins University

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Type of resource: Books and reports

Armed conflict does not justify violations. In: Human rights for human dignity: A primer on economic, social, and cultural rights (2014)
Amnesty International, pp. 89-93, July

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Type of resource: Books and reports

Conflict situations (2013) - Annual report to the UN General Assembly, A/68/297
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health

Open resource