The Protection of Health Workers Demand State Accountability

  • December 1, 2022
The Protection of Health Workers Demand State Accountability

The MEDICAL ACTION GROUP (MAG), a health and human rights organization based in the Philippines, is deeply concerned over the continuing attack against health workers worldwide. MAG believes that any attack against health workers or health facilities is against human rights and humanitarian laws and therefore an affront to humanity.

The arrest of Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, president of the Turkish Medical Association, on October 26, 2022, by the Turkish authorities is counterproductive as it undermines the independent role of health professionals in providing their clients access to healthcare and ensuring delivery of humanitarian assistance, especially to victims of torture and ill-treatment. Dr. Fincanci has spent her life defending the rights of persons deprived of liberty and who are at constant risk of torture. She was a member of the expert group that developed the Istanbul Protocol (Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) which is considered the international standard for forensic investigations of torture. Dr. Fincanci was arrested due to her participation in a media broadcast in which she spoke about the alleged use of chemical weapons in northern Iraq and called for an effective and independent investigation into these allegations.

MAG is also alarmed that many health workers in Iran are increasingly finding themselves in chaotic and frightening circumstances as they stand to treat thousands of injured protesters after violent dispersals. The most serious incident so far was when the Iranian police opened fire on a doctors’ protest in front of the Tehran Medical Council building on October 26, 2022, wounding several protesters and killing a young surgeon, Parisa Bahmani. Physicians are bound by the Hippocratic Oath and their protection and safety, including that of other health workers, are paramount, especially during violent political unrest and humanitarian crisis.

The Philippines is no exception to this cruelty as Filipino health workers, especially those serving in rural areas doing development work, are also under attack in the name of the government’s war on terror. The killing of Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan on December 15, 2020, had a chilling effect on our community health workers nationwide.  Dr. Sancelan and her husband were shot and killed by two gunmen while on their way home in barangay Poblacion, Guihulngan City. She was the only doctor in the city of more than 100,000 population consisting mostly of small farmers and fisherfolks. Her killing happened at a time when the county was still reeling from the effects of COVID-19. Before she was murdered, Dr. Sancelan was red-tagged and accused by a local anti-communist vigilante group of being a ranking officer of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army.

Similarly, the arrest of Dr. Natividad ‘Naty’ Castro, who was charged with the alleged kidnapping and serious illegal detention, in February 2022 appeared to be part of a pattern of attacks against human rights defenders in the country.  The manner of her arrest, particularly the alleged irregularity in the procedure carried out by the arresting police authorities, and the red-tagging of Dr. Castro for her work as a doctor for indigenous communities was malicious and deliberate. When she was arrested, the arresting officers declined to show proper identification, denied her access to counsel, and refused to divulge to her family where she will be brought. The allegations against Dr. Castro however were eventually dismissed by the Bayugan City Regional Trial Court for lack of merit.

Our hearts go out to all health workers who are risking their lives to save others. We, therefore, call on the governments and the international community to do everything in their power to protect and ensure the safety of health workers around the world. The protection of health workers demands state accountability, especially when their own governments are the ones putting them at risk.

The right to health is a fundamental human right that can’t be suspended nor restricted especially in situations of conflict and violence. Therefore, we should always afford protection to all health workers especially those who put themselves in danger in the performance of their duties.

Under the World Medical Association’s DECLARATION ON THE PROTECTION OF HEALTH CARE WORKERS IN SITUATION OF VIOLENCE, “access to medical assistance for the sick and wounded, whether they have been engaged in active combat or not, is guaranteed through various international agreements, including the Geneva Conventions. The primary obligation of physicians is always to their patients, and physicians have the same ethical responsibilities to preserve health and save lives in whatever situations.”

On December 10, the world will commemorate International Human Rights Day to remind us that everyone has equal rights and should be protected by law. The Medical Action Group takes this opportune time to give honor to all health workers especially those who are bravely working in an unsecured and dangerous environment just to bring the necessary healthcare services to all.

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