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United Kingdom: Conflict poses fundamental obstacle to safe health care, ICRC tells inquiry

08-07-2014 Feature

Receiving safe and effective treatment when we are unwell or injured is vital for our health. Yet in times of war and violence, even getting help for common ailments or chronic conditions, not to say severe wounds, can be impossible. The ICRC has told a House of Commons inquiry more must be done to protect millions left without life-saving help when violence erupts.

Conflict poses fundamental obstacle to safe healthcare, ICRC tells UK parliamentary inquiryThe International Committee of the Red Cross has been working to raise awareness of the devastating effects of violence on health care for the past three years. We talk to security forces, health workers and armed groups across the world to help ensure that access to health care for all is prioritized and enabled by sensible policies and implementation of laws that protect both doctor and patient.

In June the ICRC submitted evidence to a House of Commons inquiry into global health systems. We cautioned that conflict poses a fundamental obstacle to the safe delivery of care. Yet despite this vulnerability, clear steps can be taken to prevent attacks on health workers, ambulances and hospitals, to increase the resilience of local workers, volunteers and patients, and to hold to account those who deliberately obstruct care.

Health care and its practical delivery to the wounded and sick is specifically and explicitly protected by international humanitarian law, or the law of armed conflict, as well as human rights law. It is the responsibility of authorities to ensure that populations under their control have access to appropriate levels of health care, just as they must be able to eat, drink and have safe shelter. Not only is this a humanitarian imperative at an individual level - where those who suffer grave attacks, or serious illnesses, deserve care and attention to relieve their suffering - there is also a global imperative for all people to have safe access to treatment.

In May of this year the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global health emergency because polio, which had been on the verge of being eradicated, has made a come-back in conflict-affected areas of Pakistan and Syria. Vaccines which would have prevented the spread of the disease could not reach vulnerable, conflict-affected people. Such preventative medicine, as well as surgery and routine prescriptions, can affect the health of vast numbers of people.

We told the Parliamentary Committee that one of the biggest challenges to dealing with the problem of violence against health care is understanding the scale of the phenomenon. Along with organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres and WHO the ICRC is pushing for accurate and reliable data on incidents from which we can draw conclusions on how best to tackle the problem.

A report will be produced by the International Development Committee from the inquiry and made available to the public later in 2014.

Read the ICRC’s submission to the inquiry: Health Systems Strengthening

Photo: ICRC / C Lepage / ss-e-00208