As Arabs Revolt, Government Forces Target Health Workers

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Unsung heroes of the uprisings, volunteer doctors, nurses, even dentists are risking their lives and coming under attack. Can the world protect them?

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Doctors tend to a wounded Qaddafi soldier, captured earlier by rebel fighters, in a Misrata medical station. Yannis Behrakis / Reuters


When protesters gathered in Pearl Roundabout on February 15, they hoped to create Bahrain's own Tahrir Square, the site of Egypt's revolution only a few days earlier. Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered on the grounds of the roundabout to demand democracy and equal treatment for the country's Shia majority. Two days later, Bahrain's security apparatus unleashed a brutal crackdown on the protesters, wounding and killing hundreds.

When wounded protestors started arriving at the country's hospitals, the medical staff did what they were trained to do: provide medical care. This provoked the full wrath of the state's security forces. Since the uprising started, police and the military have attacked nine health centers in the country in retaliation for providing care to wounded protestors. Medical staff have been intimidated, beaten, interrogated, and arrested. Now the Bahraini government has announced that 47 doctors and nurses are to be tried in a special military court. Officially they are charged with attempting to topple the government and spreading false news. Their real crime is doing their jobs.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, health workers have provided medical care in almost every pro-democracy movement since the Arab Spring began. Increasingly, they are paying for it with their freedom, their blood, and their lives.

When demonstrators occupied Egypt's Tahrir Square, local health workers set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby mosque. There, among dividers made from hanging prayer mats, Egyptian doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and others treated protestors injured by everything from rocks to bullets, even as fighting raged nearby.

In Libya, where demonstrations have escalated into full-scale civil war, health workers, some of whom crossed over the border from Egypt to help their revolutionary brethren, are on the frontlines. Doctors in the besieged city of Misrata work in half-destroyed hospitals under threat of artillery and snipers. In March, Gaddafi's forces reportedly attacked the city's main hospital, which was said to contain 400 patients and medical staff inside at the time. East of Misrata, health workers in rebel-held areas have built an improvised health system for fighters and civilians alike. One Libyan doctor was training in Atlanta, Georgia, when the civil war broke out. He returned home and now works in the trauma hospital in Benghazi, the rebel capital.

In Yemen, when protestors turned the main square of Yemeni capital Sana'a into a tent city, health workers were there, setting up a field hospital in a local mosque. They continued to provide treatment even while security forces and regime supporters opened fire on thousands of protesters.

And in the Syrian city of Daraa, where the government has launched a bloody counterattack, using tanks against protestors in the town, health workers established a makeshift field hospital in a mosque to provide care. Elsewhere in the country, Syrian secret police have ordered health workers to not treat wounded protestors. Three doctors were arrested when they refused. But this hasn't stopped health workers from serving their patients: now doctors are reportedly treating people covertly inside private homes, out of sight of the secret police.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, health workers have put themselves at great personal risk to provide medical care during democratic movements. But for the most part, the world has stood aside while doctors, nurses, dentists, medical students, and other medical professionals have been arrested, beaten, wounded, and killed. What does it say about the United States when Bahrain's unprecedented crackdown against health workers occurs just miles from the home of the U.S. 5th Fleet?

The Democracy ReportInternational law has long enshrined special protections for health workers in war. But, what about the civil unrest seen during the Arab Spring? "Even if the situation isn't clearly an armed conflict" said Dr. Stephanie Carvin, Lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, "there are unambiguous international rules which would prohibit the direct targeting of neutral ambulance workers and medical personnel." The present legal protections are clearly not enough to keep these humanitarian workers safe. The U.S. and international community must do more to protect health workers, first by affirming the current protections for health workers during war and second by strengthening the application of these protections to all cases of political violence -- including the type of government crackdowns seen during the Arab Spring. But simply reinforcing legal protections will likely not be enough; they must be backed by action. Seeing that doctors and nurses are no longer targeted will require pressuring the offending governments -- such as those of Yemen or Bahrain -- to stop persecuting health workers for doing their jobs. We will likely never have a full accounting of the sacrifices made by medical staff during the democratic protests movements. But we do know that these unsung heroes of the Arab Spring continue to risk their lives to provide medical care, and we should have their backs.

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Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D candidate at U.C. Davis specializing in the relationship between armed conflict and public health. He writes at Conflict Health, Current Intelligence, and the U.S. Naval Institute blog.

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