Dr. Dainius Puras is UN special rapporteur on “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
GENEVA, June 21, 2018 (IPS) — Ambulance drivers attacked, nurses detained, doctors tortured, pharmacists arrested, dentists facing more than a decade in prison—all for delivering healthcare to people considered enemies of the state.
There is a disturbing global phenomenon of governments using domestic laws, policies, and practices to punish health professionals for doing their job to treat those in need. Whether it’s vague counter-terrorism legislation, misguided domestic laws and policies, or harsh administrative sanctions, states are often turning to domestic laws to criminalize health care.
I have been privileged to be part of the medical profession for more than three decades. In recent years, I have seen the ways in which laws provide a pretext for states to enact violence and punitive sanction against my fellow health workers. These alarming trends undermine the ethical foundation of medicine and the human rights of communities we have pledged to serve.
Health professionals have a duty to care for the sick, wounded and injured, regardless of their patients’ political affiliation or which side of a conflict they are on. The core human rights principle of non-discrimination is not only a key component of medical ethics, but an essential part of our humanity: every human being has a right to medical care. Whether a foe or an ally, a patient is a patient.
For more than half a century, governments have recognized this concept, enshrining the protection of healthcare in international humanitarian and human rights instruments, as well as their national constitutions. Just two years ago, 80 states adopted a resolution specifically condemning attacks on health providers and their patients.
As the UN special rapporteur on the right to health, I have examined this issue during my country missions and engaged directly with governments as cases of medical professionals under threat have come to my attention.
Regrettably, health professionals continue to be harassed, fired, arrested, prosecuted and even killed for caring for those in need. I am convinced that these egregious human rights violations against health professionals and the communities they seek to serve emerge from a systemic failure to explicitly safeguard healthcare in law and policy at the national level.
These practices in countries around the world do not occur in a vacuum, but emerge from embedded legal systems that ensnare health workers in a widening punitive net.
I recently requested a review of the role domestic laws play in fostering the criminalization of healthcare to understand how health workers experience extraordinary violence, harassment or sanctions. The findings are alarming: of the 16 countries analyzed in the report, authorities in at least 10 of them could interpret the provision of healthcare as supporting terrorism.
The implication of this general state of legal affairs is dire. If nurses, doctors and paramedics are afraid to treat people because they may be prosecuted, whole communities could suffer.
Some countries have begun to understand how these laws and practices undermine healthcare and are taking steps to safeguard it. But much more needs to be done. Everyone must be able to access healthcare—it is an obligation under the right to health and incumbent upon states to secure.
States must review and amend their laws to ensure they explicitly shield the sick and wounded and those who care for them. Military, police and security forces must be instructed that patients cannot be denied care, regardless of their affiliation.
This requires both a normative as well as a cultural shift in how state structures uphold everyone’s basic dignity and rights. The international community must elevate this issue to ensure the protection of healthcare permeates the entire UN family.
In times of unrest and conflict, accessing medical care can mean the difference between life and death. Laws must be there to protect those providing that essential medical care, not be used as weapons against them.