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Ethics briefing
  1. Sophie Brannan,
  2. Ruth Campbell,
  3. Martin Davies,
  4. Veronica English,
  5. Rebecca Mussell,
  6. Julian C Sheather
  1. Medical Ethics and Human Rights, British Medical Association, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Mr Martin Davies, Medical Ethics and Human Rights, British Medical Association, London WC1H 9JP, UK; mdavies{at}

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Criminalising healthcare

Essex University, in association with Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights, has brought out a timely report highlighting the increasing global criminalisation of the provision of healthcare.1 The report, with a foreword by Professor Dainius Puras, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, explores the pressures on medical impartiality arising in large part from both global and national responses to the threat of terrorism.

Both international humanitarian law, human rights law and long-established principles of medical ethics—as set out in various declarations of the World Medical Association—establish an absolute principle that all people, regardless of their beliefs, affiliation or status, have rights of access to appropriate healthcare. And this right extends to wounded and sick combatants, as well as civilians, during times of armed conflict.

One of the challenges in this area is that in recent years, many conflicts have become ‘asymmetric’. Contemporary conflicts seldom involve opposing state armies. Instead, they increasingly involve irregular combatants, often labelled ‘terrorists’ or ‘insurgents’ by the states they are opposing. In response to these threats, many states have developed sometimes draconian legislation outlawing terrorist groups and those offering support. The danger, outlined in some detail in the report, is that the vital distinction between the impartial provision of medical care and the criminal offence of materially aiding terrorism is lost.

In 2016, largely in response to the deliberate targeting of healthcare personnel and facilities in the conflicts disfiguring the greater Middle …

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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