Medical neutrality – is this a fallacy?

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk


The humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and operational independence underpin UN agencies and humanitarian non-government organisations during disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies. These principles enable humanitarian organisations to access vulnerable populations without hinderance from warring parties. Sovereign governments are responsible for the provision of health services to meet the needs of their citizens. Where a sovereign government exists, humanitarian organisations may only operate under the legal authority of the state. This places a tension between medical services operating under state authorities and those that operate under humanitarian principles. This is most apparent for medical services that support the security forces, which, by definition, cannot be neutral as they are agents of the state. They have two key functions; to enable a medically fit security force and to treat security forces casualties in order to return them to duty. Even civilian public health services cannot be operationality independent of state authorities.
This paper postulates that health services that operate under the authority of a state cannot be neutral nor operationally independent. However, they must comply with the principles of humanity (acting to protect life, health and respect for fellow humans) and impartiality (making no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions) of the Geneva Conventions and wider International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This is challenging when many national health economies determine access to care on the basis of ability to pay, level of insurance, employment, and other discriminatory factors. It will close by considering the implications of conflicts in which at least one party deliberately targets health services and other elements of critical civilian infrastructure as a means of waging war.
Period17 Jun 2023
Event title12th ICMM Workshop on Military Medical Ethics : Medical Neutrality in Theory and Practice
Event typeWorkshop
LocationSpiez, SwitzerlandShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational