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The Principle of Medical Neutrality


This video from PHR provides a brief introduction to the principle of medical neutrality, its foundation in medical ethics and international law, violations of medical neutrality, and steps that can be taken to protect and promote the principle. >> Watch Now

Modern war often turns civilians into deliberate targets. Armies shell cities, obstruct the flow of food and medical supplies, and use human shields. Militaries also undermine health care and retaliate against the health professionals who treat the sick and wounded. This violation of medical neutrality is a war crime, a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions or laws of war.

PHR promotes the principle of noninterference with medical services in times of armed conflict: Warring factions must protect civilians; allow sick and wounded civilians and soldiers both to receive care regardless of their political affiliations; and refrain from interfering with medical facilities, transport, and personnel. This is medical neutrality.

Medical neutrality ensures:

  • the protection of medical personnel, patients, facilities, and transport from attack or interference;
  • unhindered access to medical care and treatment;
  • the humane treatment of all civilians; and
  • nondiscriminatory treatment of the injured and sick.

PHR documents the deliberate targeting of health care systems and personnel, and advocates accountability for violators.

PHR's investigations regarding medical neutrality include these reports:

Less Than a Third of Aleppo’s Hospitals Functioning; 95% of Doctors Have Fled, Been Detained or Killed (November 18, 2015)

The Syrian government’s assault on eastern Aleppo city, which includes 45 attacks on medical facilities in the past three years, has decimated the city’s health care system.

Russian Forces Carried Out at Least 10 Attacks on Medical Facilities in Syria in October (November 16, 2015)

PHR has confirmed that Russian forces were responsible for at least 10 attacks on medical facilities in October, resulting in the death of at least one medical staffer.

PHR Welcomes APA’s Call to Remove Psychologists from Guantánamo and National Security Interrogations (October 30, 2015)

PHR welcomed the American Psychological Association’s request that the U.S. government withdraw all psychologists from national security interrogation roles and from Guantánamo Bay and other detention settings that operate in violation of international law.

Die-In to #DefendDoctors in Syria Commemorated in New York (October 29, 2015)

Hundreds of health professionals and volunteers participated in a “die-in” near the United Nations today to represent the almost 700 medical personnel killed during the Syrian conflict and highlight war crimes being committed through deliberate attacks on Syria’s health care system.

More Medical Neutrality News »

Russia Fanning the Flames in Syria (October 30, 2015)

Russia’s entrance into the Syrian conflict has made an already grim situation far worse... the nature of Russia’s military attacks, in step with Bashar al-Assad’s strategies, signals a new level of deterioration in the conflict.

An $81 Million Betrayal of Medical Ethics (October 14, 2015)

Psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen designed and implemented a torture program for the CIA for more than $1 million each, $5 million in indemnity against legal liability, and $81 million for the firm they established - Mitchell, Jessen, & Associates.

It’s About Civilian Protection (October 7, 2015)

Even in a world inured to violence, the U.S. airstrike on a Doctors without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, which killed both staff and patients, was shocking.

American Psychological Association’s First Step Toward Accountability (August 10, 2015)

When the American Psychological Association (APA) Council of Representatives voted Friday morning to rescind its policy allowing psychologists to participate in the interrogation of security detainees, it was a tectonic shift.

More Medical Neutrality Posts »

Aleppo Abandoned (November 2015)

The Syrian government’s ongoing assault on health care is one of the most egregious the world has ever seen. This report focuses specifically on the state of health care in eastern Aleppo city and tells a story of courage and resilience in the face of tremendous human suffering and loss.

Preliminary Statement on the Hoffman Report (August 2015)

PHR’s statement outlines key findings of the Hoffman report and provides recommendations for accountability, policy reform, and justice.

Letter to APA Leadership on Prohibiting Psychologists' Participation in Interrogations (July 2015)

PHR's executive director sent a letter to leaders of the American Psychological Association supporting recommendations on prohibiting psychologists’ participation in interrogations.

Navy Nurse Press Call (May 2015)

Physicians for Human Rights commends the U.S. Navy’s decision not to discharge the nurse who refused to participate in the force-feeding of Guantánamo detainees.

More Medical Neutrality Research »

Featured Report

Under the Gun: Ongoing Assaults on Bahrain’s Health System

In February 2011, the Government of Bahrain began targeting health professionals who treated protesters. In April 2012, PHR's Richard Sollom, Deputy Director, and Holly Atkinson, MD, FACP, past President of PHR's Board and volunteer expert, authored a report showing the devastation on Bahrain's health system that have resulted from the Government of Bahrain’s continued assault on doctors, patients, and the healthcare system. Read More »