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Australia: conference on protecting health care in armed conflict

02-11-2011 News Release 11/224

Geneva/Sydney (ICRC) – Violence against patients, health-care workers and health-care facilities during times of armed conflict and violent upheavals is currently one of the most crucial yet overlooked humanitarian problems.

Government experts, academics, health-care providers, military officers, lawyers, humanitarians and others will address this issue on 3 November at a national conference on "Protecting health care in armed conflict" in Brisbane. The conference will be hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), The University of Queensland and Australian Red Cross and will be opened by Her Excellency, Ms Penelope Wensley AC, Governor of Queensland.

Paul-Henri Arni, a Geneva-based ICRC staff member in charge of a special project on the dangers facing health-care services in armed conflict, will present a bleak picture of rampant attacks and urge governments to respond proactively. "From Somalia, where hospitals have been shelled, to Libya, where ambulances have been shot at, to Afghanistan, where wounded patients languish for hours on end at checkpoints, there is an urgent need to ensure that people seeking or providing health care are protected," he said.

"Primary responsibility for the protection of health-care providers and facilities amid armed conflict and lies with States and combatants, who must obey the law, not with humanitarian organizations responding to the consequences of any failure to do so," said Mr Arni.

Professor Alan Lopez, the head of The University of Queensland's School of Population Health, will draw attention to the alarming long-term cost of violence against health-care providers. "In populations where health systems and health care professionals are at risk, or under attack, these systems are often already fragile and services suffer severe disruption," said Prof. Lopez. "This not only has an immediate effect on the health of populations they serve, but the damage to infrastructure and the loss of critical health care personnel can have a substantial effect on health care services delivery for years, if not decades, to come."

Greg Vickery, the president of Australian Red Cross, says that Australian Red Cross is concerned about the precarious conditions in which many Australian aid workers provide medical relief and assistance overseas, noting the significant numbers of Australians on health-related missions. "Australian Red Cross is resolute in its commitment to work towards the strengthened protection for health workers in situations of conflict and other violence, equally for the local health workers who are the bedrock of response worldwide as for our own staff to whom we have a duty of care," he said.

Deliberate attacks on health-care personnel and facilities and on patients and medical vehicles violate international law. The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols set out the right of the wounded and the sick, whether they be civilians or fighters, to receive medical assistance during times of armed conflict.

For further information, please contact:
Kim Batchelor, Australian Red Cross, tel: +61 457 542 113
Marlene McKendry, University of Queensland, tel: +61 401 996 847
Philippe Stoll, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 31 40 or +41 79 536 92 49