Exploring Human Potential

Syrian Debate: What Would Doctors and Nurses Do?

Posted on | September 4, 2013 | Comments Off on Syrian Debate: What Would Doctors and Nurses Do?

Mike Magee

President Obama has appropriately asked the US Congress to debate our response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The value for the US and the world is the first full airing of the pro’s and con’s of attempting, through treaties and agreements and the enforcement of such agreements, to maintain a basic level of sanity and order in the world.

Chemical weapon use has a history in Europe and around the world that does not speak well for human populations. Their use in the past has signaled a fundamental breakdown in governance and a reliable marker for savagery to come. On the other hand, attempts to enforce standards carry with them a range of repercussions that are often unpredictable and highly destructive themselves.

In the past, leaders often treaded water as long as possible until finally the right choice was obvious. Other times, they jumped the gun, as with Iraq, and paid the price. In this case, we are all being drawn out into the open, not as a political maneuver, but with serious intent. How shall we govern this world? Are we governable at all? And if not, what will become of our planet and our human population?

Part of the equation that should be inserted into the assessment is the impact of these decisions on health professionals in the areas affected. In 2012, before these latest chemical atrocities, the World Medical Association in Geneva specifically commented on health professionals in Syria.

Their declaration stated:

“The WMA recognises that attacks on health care facilities, health care workers and patients are an increasingly common problem and the WMA Council denounces all such attacks in any country.

These often occur during armed conflict and also in other situations of violence, including protests against the state.  Patients, including those injured during protests, often come from the poorest and most marginalised parts of the community and suffer a higher proportion of serious health problems than those from wealthier backgrounds.

Governments have an obligation to ensure that health care facilities and those working in them can operate in safety and without interference either from state or non-state actors, and to protect those receiving care.

Where services are not available to patients due to government action or inaction, the government, not the health practitioners, should be held responsible.

Noting that recent and ongoing conflicts in Bahrain and Syria have seen physicians, other health care personnel and their patients attacked while in health care facilities, the WMA demands:

1. That states fulfill their obligations to all their citizens and residents, including political protestors, patients and health care workers, and protect health care facilities and their occupants from interference, intimidation or attack.

2. That governments enter into meaningful negotiations wherever such attacks are possible, likely or already occurring to stop the attacks and protect the institutions and their occupants, and

3. That governments consider how they can contribute positively to the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross on promoting the safety of health care provision through awareness of the concepts within their project Health Care in Danger.”

As our Congress and leaders around the world search for a wise and proper course to this latest human manufactured threat, they would do well to consider their choices through the eyes of doctors and nurses on the ground who, in the face of great danger, remain committed to caring for increasingly vulnerable human populations. The WMA declaration considers fundamental guarantees when adversaries play by the establish brutal rules of war. In a world that accepts chemical attacks on civilians, any such standards are quickly declared naive and null and void. The people and the people caring for the people vanish together in a cloud of gas.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


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