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Attacks on healthcare workers a wider tragedy

Violence against health care workers represents a further act of harm against wounded and sick people

Thursday June 25, 2015

Photo: ICRC
Photo: ICRC

In April, two brothers working for a local branch of the Yemen Red Crescent Society were shot dead while evacuating wounded people to a waiting ambulance. On the same day, two Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers were killed despite the fact they were wearing uniforms clearly marked with the protective red crescent emblem.

Sadly this tragic day is part of a bigger story. Attacks on healthcare personnel and ambulances are common features of conflicts throughout the world. In Sudan and Syria last year, Red Cross Red Crescent workers were killed as they went to provide aid to injured civilians. In Libya and the Central African Republic, Red Cross Red Crescent ambulance drivers were killed while evacuating casualties. The list goes on.

These tragic deaths confirm the terrible truth that in armed conflict health care workers are often the first victims.

Dr Debra Blackmore, an Australian aid worker who recently returned from Afghanistan with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said these acts of violence had tragic consequences beyond the immediate victims and their families.

"It can deny thousands of people access to future health care," she said. "It means health care facilities don't have trained staff; it means there are no ambulances to transport the wounded; it means there are delays in getting access to care."

"Delays in getting treatment are sadly one of the things we see too often in Afghanistan," Dr Blackmore said. "People lose their limbs because they haven't been able to get to hospital soon enough, or mothers and babies die because they can't reach care that would have allowed for a normal delivery."

A way forward

Dr Blackmore said these terrible and unacceptable tragedies were stark reminders of the need to constantly work to find new ways to protect health care workers, medical facilities and ambulances. These include fast tracking ambulances at checkpoints, training first aid workers, and spreading knowledge of international humanitarian law.

Last year alone the ICRC briefed more than 20,000 people in Afghanistan, including civil society members, community elders, religious scholars, political authorities, police, and members of the army and the armed opposition.

"We have to keep knocking on doors and highlighting the laws of war, and what they mean in terms of protecting health care worker and medical facilities," Dr Blackmore said. "We have to keep speaking out and never assume that the message has been heard that the red cross and red crescent emblems mean 'don't shoot'."

Under international humanitarian law all combatants must respect medical neutrality and grant medical personnel, equipment and vehicles safe passage. The emblems of the red cross, red crescent or red crystal are used to signify this protection. It is strictly prohibited to attack the staff and volunteers of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and all aid workers whose sole purpose is to provideĀ neutral and impartial relief in emergencies.

"The most crucial part of what we do on the ground is not to take sides, to stay out of politics," Dr Blackmore said. "This allows us to have the respect of all of the parties on the ground involved in the conflict, which gives us the best chance of having access to the people in need."

Listen to Dr Blackmore in 'The All-Access Pass' episode of our How Aid Works podcast.