Medical Personnel

By Eric Stover 

International Humanitarian Law specifically prohibits military attacks on medical personnel and units. The Fourth Geneva Convention specifies in Article 20 that “Persons regularly and solely engaged in the operation and administration of civilian hospitals… shall be respected and protected.” Other articles forbid the destruction, closure (whether temporary or permanent), or knowing interruption of the supply of food, water, medicines, or electricity to civilian hospitals and clinics. Article 19 notes that protection of civilian hospitals and mobile or permanent units may be forfeited if “they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy.”

Physicians and other health workers remain protected under IHL so long as they identify themselves as medical personnel; respect principles of medical ethics, including medical confidentiality; provide care to all victims on the basis of need, without discrimination of any kind; and do not bear arms, with the exception of light weapons for self-defense. A physician or health worker who undertakes nonmedical functions during an armed conflict cannot claim the protection of the rules of war. Dr. Che Guevara, in his political and combatant roles in Bolivia during the 1960s, could make no claims to any of the protections defined by medical neutrality. Nor could the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist.

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