The WMA (World Medical Association) has adopted the BMA’s resolution demanding the CMA (Chinese Medical Association) acknowledge serious crimes against humanity committed by the Chinese state. In dark political times this is a glimmer of light – and a significant achievement.
The resolution was adopted during the October 2023 WMA General Assembly meeting in Kigali. The resolution passed overwhelmingly: 111 to 39.
The culmination of more than three years of work, this demonstrates the BMA’s continuing role as a global leader in defending health rights and calling out abuses. The BMA first brought the WMA’s attention to the Uyghurs’ plight, with a successful 2020 resolution condemning the People’s Republic of China’s use of medicine to commit human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities. This was in the face of strong opposition from the CMA, who continue to deny any mistreatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese state.
The Chinese attempts effectively to eradicate the identity and culture of the Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities is unlike the many genocides of the 20th century. There are no massacres nor death camps. The Chinese state’s approach is more subtle, yet just as pernicious. As per the 2022 UN report, Uyghurs are subject to forced contraception, abortion, and sterilisation. This indicates extensive medical involvement; a stain on the integrity of the profession and all recognised standards of medical ethics.
This was why the WMA had to recognise and condemn these serious crimes against humanity and call on the CMA to do the same. The WMA denouncing medical complicity in human-rights abuses while allowing one of its leading members to deny the existence of, and arguably be complicit in, such ill-treatment could not stand.
This is not the first involvement of the BMA in an international human rights issue. We have a long and proud history of standing up for health rights across the world. From our first report of doctors’ involvement in torture in the 1980s to our seminal report last year, Health and human rights in the new world (dis)order, the BMA has consistently defended fundamental ethical and humanitarian principles in medicine and health.
The BMA intervenes in human-rights issues around the world when health rights are being abused or the principle of medical impartiality is not being respected. Defenders for Medical Impartiality 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 unrest, and that medical personnel shall not discriminate or refuse care to anyone injured or sick during times of conflict and civil unrest.’
Our protocols for engagement were drawn up with Amnesty International and the British Red Cross.
The BMA believes a doctor’s right to practise medicine safely in humanitarian settings must be protected. All health professionals have a right to practise medicine without fear of reprisal or attack and doctors must be able to provide treatment to those in need irrespective of their political affiliations.
Effectively, this means the BMA involves itself in three types of situations. The first are cases in which medical professionals are subject to human-rights abuses. For example, following the recent coup in Myanmar, the military targeted doctors. The BMA led UK medical organisations writing a statement of solidarity and offering support to doctors on the ground in Myanmar.
The second are cases where doctors are implicated in human-rights abuses. In 2013, we wrote to the US president to express our outrage at reports of forced feeding of detainees in Guantanamo Bay by military medical teams.
The third category are circumstances where the right to health of patients is not being respected. In 2018, we wrote twice to the Nicaraguan ambassador after learning that physicians had been pressured to prioritise care to specific groups and, in some circumstances, to refuse care to anti-government protesters.
There is an inescapable connection between healthcare and human rights. As the professional body for doctors and medical students in the UK, it is essential that the BMA upholds the principles of health rights and call out abuses wherever they are found.
We will continue to do so; our work on the abuse of Uyghurs is just one thread of a vast tapestry of BMA activism in human rights which spans decades. As always, we will focus on ensuring the humanitarian needs of those concerned are met and the principle of medical impartiality is respected. We do this not only because of the concern of our members, but also because it is the right thing to do.
Dominic Norcliffe-Brown is BMA policy lead: medical ethics and human rights