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Canada: Experts call for protection of health facilities in conflicts

27-09-2013 News Release 13/160

Geneva/Ottawa (ICRC). More can and must be done to protect hospitals and clinics in conflict-ridden countries, such as Syria, Somalia and the Central African Republic, where fighting has wreaked havoc on health facilities, putting countless lives in danger.

This was one of the messages conveyed by a group of 60 international experts from five continents, who took part in a first-of-a-kind workshop on the protection of medical facilities, which was co-hosted by the ICRC and the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) in Ottawa this week. The group included doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals, as well as humanitarian experts, legal advisers, government officials, members of the armed forces, and weapons and security experts.

"Too often, in conflicts across the globe, we see hospitals being looted or deliberately targeted. Armed men will enter patients' rooms looking to arrest or kill enemy fighters. Sometimes they threaten medical staff and prevent them from treating people from the opposing side," said Rob Young, the ICRC's senior delegate in Canada. "These facilities can also be accidentally attacked or indirectly affected. For instance, if the authorities cut off water or electricity supplies to a city, medical services grind to a halt… these were the types of problems that were discussed."

“The workshop produced some practical recommendations that could be useful for many officials responsible for the safety of health care facilities around the world,” said Dr Ghazi Ismail, Yemen's deputy minister of health, who travelled to Ottawa for the workshop.

One of the group's top recommendations was that contingency planning must include measures to ensure that a hospital is able to function autonomously for several days without communications, electricity, water, or other essential services. This could be as simple as having back-up generators and fuel supplies, solar power sources, or rainwater catchment systems on hospital rooftops. By the same token, the experts said service suppliers and providers must also plan for emergencies and ensure they have the capacity to re-establish and deliver water, electricity, and communications to health facilities in particular. By simply prioritizing hospitals and clinics, and planning ahead, lives can be saved.  

Each year, the Canadian Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations in the country, deploy many Canadian health professionals abroad, including some violent contexts. “Health in emergencies, in Canada, and around the world, is a priority for us,” said Conrad Sauvé, secretary general and CEO of the Canadian Red Cross.

It's also of major concern to the ICRC, which is conducting a major campaign and long-term project, entitled "Health Care in Danger" that aims to ensure better protection for health workers, vehicles, and facilities in armed conflicts across the world.

The Ottawa gathering was part of a series of ICRC-led workshops focusing on different problems that plague or prevent the delivery of medical aid in conflict-ridden countries.

A follow-up workshop will be held in April 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa. The recommendations from the Ottawa and Pretoria gatherings will be presented at a major conference in 2015 involving all States Party to the Geneva Conventions and the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

For further information, please contact:
Anna Nelson, ICRC North America, tel: +1 202-361-1566
Canadian Red Cross Media Line, tel: +1 613-740-1994
Anastasia Isyuk, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 30 23 or +41 79 251 9302