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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.”


BMA action to protect medical impartiality

The British Medical Association has signed the Colombo Declaration, which condemns attacks on medical personnel and facilities in conflict situations, and in February 2019 we joined the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and fourteen additional medical Royal Colleges in writing to the Foreign Secretary to request that the UK Government also signal its support for the Declaration.

Adding his support to the letter, Dr John Chisholm, chair of the BMA’s medical ethics committee said: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the practice of intentionally targeting medical personnel and facilities in areas of conflict. Access to health care is a fundamental human right and it is essential that healthcare workers are at liberty to provide assistance in conflict zones without fear of being targeted.”

The Colombo Declaration – drafted in Sri Lanka in 2016 - condemns the targeting of medical facilities, patients and clinicians in areas of conflict and calls on United Nations member states to support the enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 2286. This resolution demands that member states uphold and comply with the 1949 Geneva Conventions which criminalise targeted attacks on medical personnel and facilities under International Humanitarian Law.

Further reading

Read the letter to the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP

Get involved

Sign the Colombo Declaration, or 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.

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