NEW YORK – Doctors and medical personnel have become additional victims of the uprising taking place in several Arab countries. Attacks on doctors violate the principle of medical neutrality that ensures that doctors and medical personnel should be free to treat those in need — regardless of politics, race or religion. Rule 26 of the List of Customary Rules of International Humanitarian Law states that “Punishing a person for performing medical duties compatible with medical ethics or compelling a person engaged in medical activities to perform acts contrary to medical ethics is prohibited.”
Violation of this rule has been particularly evident in Bahrain, were doctors, nurses and other medical personnel have been viciously tortured and set on trial in military court. Among the allegations against them is that doctors and nurses stole blood so that protesters could fake serious injury, and also of being part of a militant Shiite clique that had taken control of Manama’s biggest hospital and used it as a base for overthrowing the royal government. The Sunni rule a majority-Shiite populated country.
Unlike his serious protests against government abuses in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the U.S. government has been extremely cautious in criticizing the government in Bahrain. This reluctance can be explained by the fact that Bahrain is host to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
As stated by Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, “North American and European Governments, so vocal recently in espousing the cause of human rights in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, also need to speak loudly about what is going on in Bahrain.” Unlike those governments, human rights organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International (AI) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have been extremely vocal in their concern about abuses against doctors and other medical personnel. The Bahraini authorities stated that they were just taking necessary measures to prevent destabilization in the country provoked by foreign forces.
Many convictions of medical personnel are for political reasons such as having participated in unauthorized demonstrations and “incitement of hatred against the regime.” Human Rights Watch has urged the Bahraini government to stop special military court proceedings against those arrested during the country’s antigovernment protests.
In Syria, there is an underground network of medics, who call themselves the “Damascus Doctors” who want not only to save lives but to expose the crimes of the Syrian regime. The group is made up of some 60 medical professionals who provide on-the-ground care and help the wounded. The Syrian secret police has ordered doctors and other medical personnel not to treat wounded protesters threatening retribution. It is a sad paradox that doctors are afraid of reprisals by a government ruled by Bashar al-Assad, a medical doctor himself.
In Libya, doctors are also in the frontline, in many cases working in extremely hard conditions and under constant threat of government forces. Some of the doctors in the frontline have been trained overseas and have returned to their country to help during the civil war. Last March, government troops attacked the main hospital in Misrata that had at the time 400 patients and medical personnel inside.
In Yemen, medical workers set up a field hospital in a local mosque, providing care as security forces and the regime supporters opened fire on thousands of mostly unarmed civilian protesters.
Across North Africa and the Middle East, medical personnel have been courageously treating the wounded at great personal risk. Legal protections do not seem to work in authoritarian regimes under threat. The international community should continue to exert pressure to ensure that they are safe and able to fulfill what doctors and other medical personnel believe is their professional duty and responsibility.
Dr. Cesar Chelala, M.D., is an international public health consultant and award-winning writer on human rights issues.