Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Health Workers need better protection

We can never let up in our efforts to convince combattants that targeting medical workers and health facilities is not only a breach of international law but contrary to all accepted customary norms of war throughout all cultures. Unfortunately, we still recieve frequent reports of hospitals being bombed, paramedics being shot and ambulances being mortared.

The neutrality of the Red Cross means that speaking out on such incidences is quiet rare. Why? Well for a start, access to the sick and wounded must be the priority and if public silence is the price to pay, so be it. Behind closed doors issues are raised directly with those who can influence positive change on the ground. I have personally witnessed this in many contexts such as in the Caucasus, Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian Territories and Darfur.

The frustration of course is that you are sometimes also restricted from speaking about 'positive' progress (as it implies that a negative existed in the first place). However, there are exceptions to public denouncements - especially if there is irrefutable evidence that the targetting of civilians or medical workers and facilities is deliberate and part and parcel of military strategy (very difficult to prove).

The Red Cross also operates according to the principle of Independence and this can, in my opinion, mean the 'independence to communicate' no matter how unsavoury the consequences. The reality is that there is often a real humanitarian responsibility to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable with all the moral authority that the Red Cross voice can muster.

In fact, it is probably being more commonly witnessed today where people affected by conflict or disaster are requesting (desperately) for the "assistance of communication" -- to advocate to the world and "tell them what is happening here". Often it is not wheatflour or tarpaulins that are needed but solidarity and advocacy on behalf of the voiceless.

While outright condemnation is rare, public statements of concern are less so. This is a topic - complex but core - that is only touched upon today but that this blog will tackle on a regular basis in the future.

The embedded 30-second TV spot above contrasts the protection afforded to combatants with the vulnerability of medical staff during an armed conflict. The spot concludes with a battle scene demonstrating how health workers put themselves in harm’s way, unprotected by flak jackets and armoured vehicles. And it reiterates that the safety of health workers must be ensured at all times so that they can do their work – so that they can save lives.


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