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Medical impartiality

medical camp in conflict zone

Medical impartiality is a fundamental ethical principle in medicine.

We believe a doctor’s right to safely practice medicine in humanitarian settings must be protected.

Doctors must be able to provide treatment to those in need irrespective of their political affiliation. All health professionals have a right to practice medicine without fear of reprisal or attack. Global conflicts in recent years, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have seriously undermined medical impartiality. Health infrastructure, and medical personnel have been targeted by both governments and non-state actors. Elsewhere, doctors have been subject to reprisals for treating the sick and injured.

International bodies, such as the United Nations, continue to document ongoing human rights violations - including the continued widespread and systematic targeting of healthcare facilities and medical personnel. Read our case studies outlining breaches below.


The principle of medical impartiality

Defenders for Medical Impartiality (DMI) define medical impartiality as:

“The international principle that no person or group shall interfere with the access to or delivery of medical services in times of conflict and civil unrests, and that medical personnel shall not discriminate or refuse care to anyone injured or sick during times of conflict and civil unrest.”


MSF Commemoration event

On 3 October 2016 the BMA, in collaboration with MSF, will host an event in commemoration of the attack on the MSF operated Kunduz Trauma Centre in Afghanistan.

Tune into the event on 3 October at 6.50pm

Future work in this area will examine what the global medical profession can do to strengthen the respect for medical impartiality.


Get involved

Join the MSF #NotATarget campaign, a social media act of solidarity to stand up for the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, patients, medical staff and hospitals in conflicts.

Add your voice


  • Kunduz

    Coalition bombing of MSF hospital in Afghanistan

    On 2 November 2015, the BMA wrote to Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood MP to seek the support of the UK government in calling on President Obama to agree to an independent investigation into the sustained bombing by coalition forces of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan on 3 October.

    Twelve hospital staff members and at least 10 patients, including three children were killed on that night, with a further two members of staff presumed dead. In addition, 37 people, including 19 staff members were injured. All parties to the conflict were given the accurate GPS co-ordinates of the hospital and yet it was precisely hit several times by coalition bombing.

    In his letter to Mr Ellwood, BMA medical ethics committee chair John Chisholm CBE backed MSF's call for a full and transparent investigation into what happened at Kunduz. 

    Dr Chisholm added: 'Only a fully independent investigation is appropriate for such an egregious and deadly violation of both the Geneva Conventions and the universally binding prohibition on breaches of medical neutrality. Relying on an internal investigation by a party to the conflict would be woefully inadequate.'

    Download the BMA's letter to Tobias Ellwood MP

    Read our blog: Remembering Kunduz: The week leading to the attack


    Survivors of the Kunduz bombing

    Kunduz: 6 months later

  • Bahrain

    Breaches of medical neutrality in Bahrain

    Physicians for Human Rights has highlighted ongoing violations of medical neutrality in Bahrain in the wake of popular unrest that began in early 2011.

    The lobbying group has documented attacks by the Bahraini security forces on medical institutions, including arrests and detention of medical workers providing care to protesters.

    More than two years after the start of the protests, the Bahraini government has not yet properly addressed medical neutrality violations. Those who were abducted, detained, abused and tortured have not received any reparation from the government, or even acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Some remain in prison. Others, released from prison, continue to face harassment or intimidation from state officials.

    Find out more and hear from Bahraini doctors at Physicians for Human Rights

    Read the BMA News article on the arrest of a Bahraini doctor for his use of social media

  • Gaza

    Shelling of medical facilities in Gaza

    In July 2014, BMA Council chair Dr Mark Porter said: "The BMA is deeply concerned by the loss of life in the current conflict in Gaza and by the recent shelling of medical facilities in Gaza.

    "All combatants must respect binding international standards of medical neutrality and support the common humanity of help for those people injured in war.

    "Medical personnel, patients, facilities and transports must be free at all time from attack or any form of military interference or misuse."

    On 6 August 2014, Dr Porter wrote to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing the BMA's grave concerns about the impact of recent hostilities on medical facilities and health personnel in Gaza.

    Dr Porter said the principle of medical neutrality was fundamental in international humanitarian law and called upon Israeli authorities to ensure that medical infrastructure was protected.

    Read Dr Porter's letter to Israel's Prime Minister, August 2014

  • Turkey

    Breaches of medical neutrality in Turkey

    The BMA has written to the Turkish Prime Minister expressing grave concern at the reported breaches of medical neutrality there.

    We have asked for assurances that any medical personnel detained on the basis of providing emergency treatment to protesters be released immediately, and have emphasised that the primary obligation of all doctors is to provide medical treatment according to need.

    We have made clear that threatening or detaining medical personnel for carrying out their professional obligations constitutes a fundamental violation of both international humanitarian law and internationally-binding codes of medical ethics.

    What originally started in May 2013 as a demonstration against plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul, had, by June, escalated into nationwide anti-government protests. As street clashes between protestors and police grew, doctors and nurses were taken into custody by police. The Health Ministry was reported to be demanding the names of all medical volunteers, and threatening to remove the medical licences of doctors who have treated injured protesters.

    In November 2013, medical bodies from across the world, including the BMA, sent a letter to the Turkish health minister, expressing grave concerns about a draft health law that would criminalise the provision of emergency healthcare in Turkey. 

    The letter warned that such a law would "provide the Ministry of Health with unprecedented control over healthcare practices in Turkey" and put medical personnel in direct conflict with their primary professional obligations.

    The bill was passed by the Turkish parliament on January 2, 2014. The BMA subsequently co-signed a letter to Turkish president Abdullah Gül, urging him not to sign the bill into law.

    The letter warned Mr Gül that the bill would compromise the health of Turkish citizens in need of emergency care, undermine essential trust in medical personnel and violate international and Turkish law.


    Further reading

    Read our letter to the Turkish Prime Minister, November 2015

    Read the letter, signed by the BMA, to the Turkish president, January 2014

    Read the letter, signed by the BMA, to the Turkish health minister, November 2013

    Read a BMJ editorial on attacks on medics in Turkey, August 2013

    Read our letter to the Turkish Prime Minister, July 2013 

    Read our letter to the Turkish Prime Minister, June 2013