Human rights

The BMA has always advocated the highest standards of human rights in healthcare, both for clinicians and patients. Find out more about our work.

Location: International UK
Audience: All doctors Patients and public
Updated: Thursday 25 January 2024
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Health, medicine, and the conflict in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank

The BMA is profoundly concerned by the health and humanitarian consequences of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. Read about our interventions.

​Human rights and medical practice are rooted in fundamental principles including respect, dignity, fairness and equality.


Latest report

Health and human rights in the new world (dis)order

Building on our decades of commitment to human rights in medicine and healthcare, we have published a new report on emerging threats in health-related human rights both globally and in the UK.

'Health and human rights in the new world (dis)order' outlines a shifting rights landscape in which new technologies, environmental change and geopolitical reconfigurations are putting renewed and at times intense stress on human rights, both in medicine and healthcare more broadly.

Read Zoë Greaves' blog, 'Reaffirming the importance of human rights in global medicine and healthcare'

Download the full report


BMA action

We typically intervene in cases in which doctors are involved. For example, where there has been interference with medical impartiality or where doctors themselves have become victims of human rights violations.

We will also intervene on behalf of patients where they have been prevented from accessing health care or where there are serious infringements on patients' right to health.

Our procedures for human rights interventions were drawn up with advice from Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross. They were further updated in 2014 by the BMA’s Medical Ethics Committee.

Most recently, we have spoken out against:

  • continuing attacks on medical personnel and facilities in areas of conflict
  • the continuing assaults on the medical profession in Turkey
  • the attacks on medical personnel and medical facilities in Sudan
  • the prevention of access to healthcare in Israel.

Our ethics and human rights team also publishes advice and guidance on health-related human rights issues.

The ethics and human rights team also engages with and lobbies on health-related human rights issues.

What is medical impartiality and what is the BMA doing to defend it?

Medical impartiality is a fundamental ethical principle in medicine.

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 unrest, and that medical personnel shall not discriminate or refuse care to anyone injured or sick during times of conflict and civil unrest."

The BMA believes a doctor’s right to safely practice medicine in humanitarian settings must be protected. All health professionals have a right to practice medicine without fear of reprisal or attack and doctors must be able to provide treatment to those in need irrespective of their political affiliations.

In recent years, global conflicts have seriously undermined medical impartiality. Health infrastructure, and medical personnel have been targeted by both governments and non-state individuals. Elsewhere, doctors have been subject to reprisals for treating the sick and injured.

BMA action to protect medical impartiality

The BMA 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 14 additional medical Royal Colleges in writing to the Foreign Secretary to request that the UK Government also signal its support for the declaration.

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.

Read the joint letter to the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt MP

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.

Read more about the campaign on the MSF website.


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Statement of solidarity with Myanmar

We stand in solidarity with medical professionals protesting in Myanmar and all those who are impacted.

Read the statement

Cases involving doctors


Health, medicine, and the conflict in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank

The BMA is deeply concerned by the brutal Hamas attack on 7th October 2023 and the Israeli response. This has resulted in the unacceptable taking of hundreds of hostages, the destruction of medical facilities, and the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, including healthcare workers.

Shelling of medical facilities in Gaza

In 2014, health facilities and staff came under fire in Gaza. There were also reports that health personnel had been prevented from reaching injured persons.


In January 2021, the BMA wrote to the British Ambassador to Zimbabwe to highlight our concern regarding the health, and human rights of doctors in Zimbabwe. This followed troubling reports of medical professionals being forcibly co-opted into the Zimbabwean armed forces, with deteriorating wages and working conditions, without the right to industrial action.


In October 2020, the BMA wrote to the foreign secretary regarding disturbing reports of threats being made against Belarusian medical students who protested the controversial and fraudulent re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020.

Human rights abuses by Belarusian security forces are also deeply concerning and is a violation of Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the right to free assembly.


Imprisonment of doctors in Turkey

In 2018 and 2019, the Turkish government arrested, charged and imprisoned a number of doctors for expressing concerns about the public health impacts of violent conflict. We wrote to a range of relevant authorities to express our concerns, as this is a gross violation of human rights, particularly rights to freedom of expression as protected by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by Turkey in 2003.

Breaches of medical neutrality in Turkey

In 2013, doctors and nurses in Turkey were arrested and threatened with the loss of their medical licenses for treating protesters who were injured during public demonstrations. Most recently, one doctor and three nurses were detained for providing treatment to a 12-year-old child during a curfew imposed as a result of the protest. We have written to relevant authorities to express our concerns about these breaches of medical neutrality.


In August 2019, the BMA wrote to the Iranian ambassador and the foreign secretary to raise concerns about the detention of Dr Ahmadreza Djalali who has been denied access to healthcare while in detention and who is expected to be subject to the death penalty.

Withholding or obstructing access to healthcare and treatment contravenes both medical ethics and international law, particularly the right to health. Furthermore, there is growing international consensus that the death penalty equates to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, which violates the right to life – protected by Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In November 2020, the BMA received the alarming news that the execution of Dr Djalali would be carried out imminently. The BMA wrote directly to the Iranian government requesting Dr Djalali’s release.

In 2021, the BMA was informed of further serious deterioration of Dr Djalali’s health, resulting both from torture and being kept in solitary confinement, and wrote once again to the Iranian authorities to demand his immediate release


Death penalty for pregnant doctor in Sudan

In 2014, Dr Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, who was eight months pregnant at the time of sentencing, was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity and refusing to make a public recantation of her faith. We wrote to the Sudanese president to condemn this blatant violation of Dr Ibrahim’s rights.

Attacks on hospitals, targeting of health professionals

On 3 June 2019 the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and other paramilitaries conducted a series of violent attacks on peaceful protesters, including physicians, which involved extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary killings, beatings and sexual and gender-based violence. During the attacks, security forces entered two hospitals, Almoalim and Royal Care hospitals, in pursuit of injured protesters.

A similar attack was made on Omdurman Hospital in January 2019. Reports of the attack state that security forces opened fire inside the hospital while looking for individuals who had been injured participating in protests earlier in the day. The intentional targeting of health professionals, including hospitals and medical facilities, is a clear breach of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and of International Humanitarian Law, as well as accepted international human rights norms.


Canadian doctor begins hunger strike in Egyptian custody

In 2013, Dr Tarek Loubani and Professor John Greyson were arrested and detained without charge after being caught up in clashes in Ramsis Square, Cairo, between supporters of Egypt’s deposed president, security forces, and local residents.


Health care workers threatened and criminalised for treating protesters

In November 2018, physicians in Nicaragua were dismissed and, in some cases, criminalised for providing medical care to persons involved in anti-government protests. Furthermore, healthcare workers were, in some cases, forced to prioritise care for certain groups based on their political affiliations.


Coalition bombing of MSF hospital in Afghanistan

On 3 October 2015, coalition forces bombed the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan. During the attack, 12 hospital staff members and at least 10 patients, including three children were killed. Thirty-seven people, including 19 staff members were injured. The BMA wrote to the Foreign Office to request that the UK government call on President Obama to agree to an independent investigation.


Doctors' deaths in Syrian custody

In December 2013, Dr Abbas Khan and Dr Osama Baroudi died in custody after being arrested for providing medical treatment to injured civilians during the conflict in Syria. Their arrest, detention and death represent significant breaches of international human rights standards, including rights to a fair trial.


Attacks on medical facilities and unlawful detention of doctors

In 2011, Physicians for Human Rights 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 addressed medical neutrality violations.


Cases involving patients

The right to health

The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health was first set out in the 1946 Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO), whose preamble defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity".

The preamble further states that "the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition." The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights also mentioned health as part of the right to an adequate standard of living (art. 25). The right to health was again recognised as a human right in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.


Detainment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang

The BMA Ethics and human rights department hosted an educational webinar, 'Doctors and Genocide – medical involvement in the persecution of the Uyghur People'. The webinar touched on the Uyghur Tribunal, the clinical and human rights analysis of the genocide, the Chinese politics behind this oppression, and welcomed a personal account from a survivor.

In December 2021, the Uyghur Tribunal found that China is committing biological genocide with sustained medical involvement through restriction of births by forced sterilisation and abortion, segregation of sexes within the detention centres, and forced matrimony and procreation between Uyghur women and Han men. The perversion of medicine to oppress a minority proves a continuous abuse of the human rights of the Uyghur people and other Turkic Muslim minorities in China.

In January and in April 2022 respectively, following the report of the Uyghur Tribunal Judgement, the BMA wrote again to the British Foreign Secretary to further express our concerns and demand action and wrote to the UN Secretary General calling for an independent inquiry into the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang, China.

In July 2020, the BMA wrote to the British Foreign Secretary regarding our concerns about the detainment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province in China. Disturbing reports of torture and abuse are prevalent across the detention camps. Forced sterilisation is an issue the BMA has found particularly alarming. These actions constitute a gross violation of the human rights of the Uyghur people, including their right to health.


Prevention of access to healthcare by security forces

In July and October 2018, we wrote to the Foreign Secretary and to the Nicaraguan Embassy to highlight our concerns about interferences with patients' rights to health in Nicaragua after learning that physicians had been pressured to prioritise care to specific groups and, in some circumstances, to refuse care to anti-government protesters. The rights of the injured and wounded to appropriate medical treatment are set out in a range of binding international laws, treaties and declarations. The actions of the Nicaraguan security forces in preventing the injured from seeking or receiving treatment are a gross violation of international law.


Prevention of access to healthcare

In August and November 2018, we wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt and the Israeli ambassador to raise concerns about increasingly severe restrictions placed by Israeli authorities on patients seeking to travel outside Gaza to access life-saving treatment. Withholding access to healthcare and treatment contravenes both medical ethics and international law, particularly the right to health as enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 12) and Article 25 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In September 2020, we wrote directly to the Israeli authorities on this same issue.

In February 2021, the BMA received disturbing reports of Israeli authorities blocking deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccine to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This is in violation of Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. We wrote directly to the Israeli health minister on the issue.


Inhuman treatment of children and youth in Israeli prisons, amounting to torture

In October 2022 the Chairs of the Medical Ethics Committee and the International Committee wrote to the President of the Israeli Medical Association to express our concern for the continuous ill-treatment of children and youths within Israeli prisons. Particularly in relation to the use of solitary confinement and lack of medical resources offered to the children and youths after interrogation and detention. The BMA seeks to discuss the issue with the IMA in the first instance.


BMA condemns the plight of refugees in Calais

On 13 July 2016, then BMA council chair Mark Porter wrote to the French ambassador, Sylvie Bermann condemning the recent decision by the French authorities to prevent aid convoys from entering the refugee camp in Calais to deliver basic supplies. Highlighting the plight of the refugees currently stranded in Calais, Dr Porter called on the French authorities to allow unrestricted access to those organisations who wished to provide aid to this highly vulnerable group of people.


Mistreatment of prisoners, prevention of access to healthcare

According to Amnesty International, detainees at Raja’l Shahr Prison are routinely deprived of access to necessary medical care and treatment. Withholding access to healthcare and treatment contravenes both medical ethics and international law, particularly the right to health as enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 12) and Article 25 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Anti-homosexuality law in Uganda

In 2014 Uganda enacted new legislation which means that homosexuality now carries a life sentence in Uganda. It was alleged that medical doctors would use their expertise to provide support for the enforcement of the legislation


Doctors' involvement in human rights violations


State affiliated doctors participate in executions

In August 2018, the BMA received reports that state-affiliated doctors were facilitating the execution of young prisoners in Iran. In one instance, a 19-year-old named Abolfazi Chezani Sharahi was executed for a crime he committed when he was 14-years-old, following medical opinion that he was mentally 'mature' at the time of the offence.

The involvement of physicians in any form of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment is unlawful, unethical and in gross contravention of the professional codes set down by the World Medical Association in its International Code of Medical Ethics.

United States

Medical involvement in force-feeding at Guantánamo

In April 2013, the US Department of Defense sent 40 additional military medical personnel to Guantánamo Bay Naval Base to carry out the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike. In June, it was reported that as many as 44 of the hunger strikers were being force-fed by military medical teams. The force-feeding of a mentally competent adult hunger striker by medical staff is a gross violation of internationally accepted ethical standards, as articulated by the World Medical Association declarations of Malta and Tokyo.


Health ministry sources drugs for lethal injections

In June 2013, Vietnam formally reintroduced the death penalty by lethal injection. Any involvement of physicians in any form of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, including assessing individuals as ‘fit’ for capital punishment is unlawful, unethical and in gross contravention of the professional codes set down by the World Medical Association in its International Code of Medical Ethics.