Health care in danger: the thin line between safety and neutrality

05-12-2012 Interview

Mr Mohammad-Shahabeddin Mohammadi-Araghi, international humanitarian law (IHL) expert and Under Secretary General of the Iranian Red Crescent, was recently released after being kidnapped while on duty in Libya with six other members of his team. During an international event in Norway that brings together Red Cross and Red Crescent experts around the issue of lack of safe access to health care, he shares his ideas on how to better protect first aiders working in the midst of armed violence.

How has the experience of being kidnapped while on duty affected you and your views about the work of Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies?

Experience always paves the way for new ideas in dealing with challenges. This incident reminded me again of the grave importance of the National Societies' activities, and the necessity of ensuring the safety of their staff members. As first aiders, we should always bear in mind that danger is an integral part of our job. For instance, when an earthquake hits, we must go into an area from which others are fleeing. It is exactly due to the risky nature of our activities that each year a number of relief workers lose their lives. However, this reality does not nullify the fact that we should always take into account safety and security issues for the sake of our personnel. Without this kind of approach, we cannot get involved in humanitarian work.

What do you think should be done as a priority to improve safe access to health care?

First, we must take into account safety issues for our personnel. “Parties to any conflict should always keep in mind the serious humanitarian consequences of deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against the wounded, the sick and medical personnel.

This requires international action to ensure respect of the existing frameworks, including international humanitarian law (IHL) and criminal law, to show the grave consequences of putting at risk the lives of the wounded, the sick, humanitarian relief personnel and medical staff. “To this end, coordination among National Societies, the ICRC and States constitutes an important priority, in addition to a renewed commitment to respect and ensure respect for the existing rules.

The Health Care in Danger (HCiD) campaign in that sense is a good example of such collaboration, and we hope it brings the expected results.

How do you see the link between respect for impartiality and security of the health-care teams working in the context of armed violence?

This link is not always clear to parties to a conflict or other arms carriers, as was the case for the members of the Iranian delegation who were kidnapped in Libya; despite the impartial and neutral nature of their mission. In my opinion, raising awareness about the neutrality of humanitarian activities, for example, by carrying out preventive measures, particularly from the perspective of forces involved in fighting, can definitely be a way to increase the safety of humanitarian personnel.

Being an IHL expert, do you think that the medical ethic is still applicable in situations of armed conflict, for instance, with regard to respecting a patient's confidentiality?

In armed conflicts, security and military concerns, as well as obtaining information from an opponent, are priorities for the parties to the conflict. Therefore, medical personnel who have access to the wounded combatants of both sides may be pressed to provide the belligerent with particular information about the wounded and sick, which constitutes a violation of medical ethics. The HCiD campaign aims at reminding the warring parties of their obligation to respect medical personnel at all times.

What do you expect from the workshop you are participating in?

We hope that the meeting provides an opportunity for National Societies, which have been selected due to their presence in high-risk environments, to exchange ideas. We plan to organize a similar event in Teheran next year. I hope that the outcomes of these two meetings can help us find a common understanding of the core problem and, consequently, find common solutions to meet these challenges.


Mohammad-Shahabeddin Mohammadi-Araghi 

Mohammad-Shahabeddin Mohammadi-Araghi