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Open Statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health on the occasion of the 2nd Anniversary of Security Council Resolution 2286

The Criminalisation of Healthcare

Violence against healthcare workers is not a new phenomenon, but has gained increasing visibility in recent years.  Just two years ago, we celebrated the passage of Security Council Resolution 2286—a watershed moment for the protection of impartial healthcare. 

However, today, through numerous communications, country visits, and newspaper headlines, I continue to be seized of situations where punitive measures including arbitrary arrest and detention, violent harassment, administrative sanction, enforced disappearances and even extra-judicial executions are levelled against medical professionals as a result of their healthcare provision. Many of these punitive acts occur within complex security environments including conflict situations, during organized protests, and in post-conflict settings. Without robust national efforts to protect the provision of healthcare, the medical mission remains under threat with harmful implications for the protection of human rights, particularly the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

The drafters of the Geneva Conventions and the International Bill of Human Rights had the horrors of the Second World War fresh in their memory as they developed a robust humanitarian and human rights architecture that placed human dignity at its foundation.  The punitive harassment experienced by medical professionals inspiring many of the humanitarian provisions, continues today, more than a half-century later. Despite the changing nature of conflict in the 21st century, a wounded enemy of the State remains entitled to receive care and a medical professional has an ethical duty to provide it.

I am pleased to announce the launch of a study carried out by my mandate under the leadership of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex and the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in conjunction with the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition.

This represents an important first effort to understand the chilling effects domestic legal frameworks and policies have on the delivery of healthcare. Far removed from the corridors of the United Nations, health systems, medical professionals, and the lives and dignity of countless individuals remain under threat as a result of these punitive laws and practices.

The preliminary findings of the study, which cover countries across various political and hemispheric geographies, indicate that the world over, far too many medical professionals continue to be punished for carrying out their primary healthcare role. These contemporary situations do not occur in isolation but instead emerge from a normative culture where domestic legal frameworks are used to punish medical professionals for the delivery of healthcare.

Of the sixteen countries surveyed, the local situation in at least ten suggests that authorities interpret support to terrorism to include the provision of medical care. This finding alone indicates a worrying move away from the spirit and meaning of Security Council Resolution 2286 and runs contrary to established standards of international humanitarian and human rights law, including the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health.

It is my hope that this report can make a meaningful contribution to the necessary conversation on domestic legislation that governments must begin to ensure the full and effective realization of the right to health.

The report is available at: https://www1.essex.ac.uk/hrc/documents/54198-criminalization-of-healthcare-web.pdf

Country profiles available here: https://www1.essex.ac.uk/hrc/documents/criminalization-of-healthcare-country-profiles-v2.pdf