Skip to Main Content
Printer Friendly Home > Issues > Persecution of Health Workers

Persecution of Health Workers

Physicians and other health professionals all over the world face persecution resulting from adhering to their duty to provide nondiscriminatory treatment of the injured and sick. PHR documents the deliberate targeting of health care systems and personnel, and advocates accountability for violators.

The Principle of Medical Neutrality

Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are trained to treat those in need – regardless of politics, race, or religion. Attacks on health professionals violate the principle of medical neutrality and are grave breaches of international law.

Bahrain: Systematic Attacks on Doctors and Patients

PHR's emergency report documented and decried systematic human rights abuses in Bahrain during and after unrest in February and March 2011. For the first time, forensic evidence documented government attacks on physicians, medical staff, patients, and unarmed civilians with the use of bird shot, physical beatings, rubber bullets, tear gas, and unidentified chemical agents.

Bellagio Conference on Protection of Health Workers, Patients, and Facilities in Times of Violence

In November, 2013, the Center for Public Health and Human Rights of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health convened 19 experts, including Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), from the fields of humanitarian practice, human rights, human security, academic research, government, and philanthropy, along with UN representatives and leaders from health professional associations, at Bellagio, Italy to address the grave problem of attacks on and interference with health care, particularly in times of armed conflict and internal disturbances. PHR and the various experts called upon the international community to advance the security of health, particularly in situations of armed conflict and internal disturbances. A full report of the rich and varied discussions that took place during the conference can be found here.

Jailed Doctors in Iran

Doctor Arash Alaei and Doctor Kamiar Alaei, two well-known Iranian brothers working in the field of HIV/AIDS, were detained without charge in June 2008 by Iranian authorities. The government used the doctors’ travel to international AIDS conferences as a basis for subsequently charging and convicting the doctors of conspiring with an enemy government — a dangerous conflation of public health diplomacy with treason. PHR worked tirelessly from the moment of the doctors' detention, leading the global movement resulting in their release (Dr. Kamiar in late 2010, Dr. Arash in summer 2011), working to persuade the government of Iran that treating AIDS is not a crime. 

Syria: Serious Violations of Medical Neutrality

Since mid-March, 2011, Syrian government forces have sought to crush citizen uprisings in the country. More than 190,000 people have been killed according to the UN and thousands of others are reported to be in custody or missing. PHR has also discovered reports of serious violations of medical neutrality in Syria and has been documenting attacks on medical personnel and faicitilies across the country in this interactive map. PHR has called on the government of Syria to cease its campaign of targeting medical facilities, health workers, and patients, and to safeguard the obligation of doctors to provide neutral and ethical care for civilians.

PHR Responds to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Interview on NBC (July 14, 2016)

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has the following statement as a response, attributable to PHR Executive Director Donna McKay.

Despite Aid Deliveries, Besieged Syrians in Madaya Starving to Death (July 12, 2016)

Civilians in Syria’s besieged town of Madaya are dying from malnutrition, starvation, and other preventable diseases, according to a new report published by PHR and the Syrian American Medical Society.

PHR Calls for Immediate Release of Imprisoned Turkish Human Rights Leader (June 20, 2016)

PHR calls for the immediate, unconditional release of Şebnem Korur Fincancı, chair of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey and a forensic expert who has fought alongside PHR to end torture worldwide.

Deadly Aleppo Airstrikes Damage Two Syrian Hospitals (June 8, 2016)

Airstrikes in Syria damaged two hospitals in opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo today, killing and wounding dozens. Working with information from its partners on the ground, PHR says both facilities are now out of service.

More Attacks on Doctors in Bahrain News »
More Attacks on Doctors in Syria News »
More Persecution of Health Workers News »
More Jailed Doctors in Iran News »

Starving to Death in Madaya (July 13, 2016)

In late spring 2016, 12-year-old Ola died in Syria. In a place where her death could easily have been caused by barrel bombs, missiles, or mortar fire, she instead suffered a slow and painful death from starvation. This happened because she lived in Madaya.

Conversations: One Doctor’s Struggle for Justice (June 2, 2016)

The only way to reinstate peace and stability in Syria is to document ongoing crimes in the hopes that those responsible will some day be brought to justice, according to a doctor working with Physicians for Human Rights along the Turkish border.

Assad, Beware the Long Arm of Justice (April 13, 2016)

As a shaky ceasefire in Syria appears on the verge of collapse, peace talks are set to resume in Geneva this week. It’s a harrowing time for Syrians, made all the worse by the Syrian government continuing to willfully cut off deliveries of food and medicine to civilians.

We Must Hold Assad to Account for Murdering Doctors and Journalists (March 23, 2016)

On December 23, a paramedic with the civil defense, or White Helmets, was killed by Syrian government shelling while aiding the wounded in al Nashabiya, a small town in besieged Eastern Ghouta, in the Damascus suburbs. Three others were killed and 13 injured during that assault.

More Attacks on Doctors in Bahrain Posts »
More Attacks on Doctors in Syria Posts »
More Persecution of Health Workers Posts »
More Jailed Doctors in Iran Posts »

Madaya: Portrait of a Syrian Town Under Siege (July 2016)

The Syrian government has besieged Madaya – a small town controlled by opposition forces an hour’s drive from Damascus – trapping residents inside without access to supplies, food, or services outside the town since July 2015.

Letter to President Obama on the Kunduz Hospital Attack (April 2016)

PHR sent a letter to President Obama expressing grave concern about the increased frequency of attacks on hospitals and medical personnel across the globe, including the devastating October airstrikes by the U.S. military on an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

Update on Syria – April 2016 (April 2016)

Syria’s cessation of hostilities, which came into effect on February 27, was supposed to reduce violence and guarantee delivery of humanitarian aid to desperate populations in need across Syria. The reduction of violence witnessed in the first weeks of the cessation has started to reverse course, and the cessation has largely failed on its promises to deliver life-saving humanitarian aid to the millions of Syrians in besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

Prepared Remarks - Five Years of War in Syria: Health Care Under Attack (March 2016)

Director of Programs Widney Brown of Physicians for Human Rights delivered remarks at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Briefing - Five Years of War in Syria: Health Care Under Attack.

More Attacks on Doctors in Bahrain Research »
More Attacks on Doctors in Syria Research »
More Persecution of Health Workers Research »
More Jailed Doctors in Iran Research »

Featured Expert

Nizam Peerwani, MD

Nizam Peerwani, MD

Dr. Peerwani is also an advocate of human rights and serves as a forensic advisor for Physicians for Human Rights with completed assignments in Rwanda, Bosnia, Indonesia, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel for genocide and human rights violations under the auspices of the United Nations Tribunal. Read More »