Protecting doctors in Syria

The political upheaval of the recent Arab Spring has taken center stage in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet an alarming trend — the systematic attacks on medical professionals, facilities and patients — represents one of the most overlooked humanitarian issues and tactical threats facing people living in armed conflict and civil unrest.

As public servants, we have sworn to defend and protect the universal values enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. As medical doctors, we took an oath to use our medical skills for the betterment of all human beings and to prevent harm to them. At no time in history has endorsing these values been more important for global security than it is now. The relentless mass slaughter of civilians continues in Syria before the eyes of an indecisive international community. Our medical and moral obligations compel us to speak out against the war crimes committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad and his operatives. 

Since last March, Assad — a fellow physician who would have been taught to do no harm — has governed over the loss of 9,000 lives and the displacement of more than 500,000 Syrians. He continues to block urgent humanitarian assistance from reaching millions of Syrians in need and ignore a United Nations and Arab League-supported cease-fire and peace plan that went into effect on April 12. 

A recently released internal report from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) detailed the Assad government’s use of force to block humanitarian assistance and medical aid from reaching the wounded. According to U.N. and other international observers, Syrian Arab Republic Government (SARG) troops still maintain heavy weapons in urban centers, hindering mobility of medical units that have been deployed there. The USAID report accounts an incident on April 24 in which government forces attacked a Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicle that was evacuating wounded civilians near Damascus, killing one aid volunteer and injuring three. USAID contractors have since suspended the deployment of mobile medical units in the vicinity of Damascus. 

These attacks on patients and medics are not mere side effects of conflict or civil unrest. They are deliberate tactics to overpower dissidents and constitute serious violations of medical neutrality — the principle that medical professionals have a professional duty to provide nondiscriminatory care to those who are in need, and that governments have the responsibility not to interfere with the medical profession. Under this principle, all people should have access to care in times of conflict, and medical professionals must be able to conduct their work without intimidation, harassment or fear of attack. 

Violations of medical neutrality damage entire communities and contribute to dangerous political instability. As the world is learning in countries like Syria and Bahrain, attacks on healthcare fundamentally undermine personal security and intimidate victims from seeking care when needed. Yet violations of medical neutrality are not unique to Syria. Repressive governments have long targeted the medical community because doctors and other medical professionals often are first-responders to victims of government attacks and therefore have key evidence about human rights violations. 

In the face of these ongoing attacks in Syria and other countries in the region, the United States can and should take action in the interest of stabilizing the region. First, Congress should immediately pass the Syria Sanctions Act of 2011, introduced with bipartisan support by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). This bill would build upon existing U.S. sanctions against Syria and further isolate the Assad regime. 

To protect vulnerable civilian communities all around the world, Congress and the administration must fully support and enact as soon as possible the Medical Neutrality Protection Act — a bill that bans the sale of select U.S. military assistance to countries whose governments attack hospitals, detain doctors, intimidate patients and commit other violations of medical neutrality. 

We must ensure that repressive governments know they will face serious repercussions when they unleash brutal attacks against civilian populations. The United States should set an example by standing up for the right to access medical care — an internationally recognized right irrespective of one’s sectarian ties, political affiliation or race — before thousands more die because they could not find a doctor.


McDermott is a psychiatrist representing the 7th congressional district of Washington and is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Last July, McDermott introduced H.R. 2643, the Medical Neutrality Protection Act. Xenakis is a psychiatrist and a retired Army brigadier general as well as an adviser to Physicians for Human Rights.