Jeremy Laurance: Doctors must speak up about this human rights scandal

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The Independent received some dramatic stories from Bahrain last week of beatings and harassment endured by doctors and nurses at the hands of the security services. The latest accounts of ill treatment appear in today's paper. Victims were taken from their homes and workplaces, beaten, verbally threatened and abused, blindfolded and made to run the length of a corridor until they crashed into a wall.

Yet by their own admission, even this level of abuse does not rank high in the annals of torture, and many of the doctors' compatriots arrested by the Bahraini security services suffered worse. What makes it shocking is the flagrant abuse of the principle of medical neutrality that has underpinned humanitarian work in conflict zones across the world for more than a century. Doctors and nurses are taught from their first day in medical school that they must treat each patient according to their needs, without regard to their race, creed or nationality – or what side they are on.

It is a fundamental humanitarian principle, spelt out in the code of conduct of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, that the givers of humanitarian assistance should have "unimpeded access to affected populations." That isn't happening – not only in Bahrain but elsewhere. The intimidation of medical staff is becoming routine and unless it is stopped we risk slipping back into an era where the red cross and red crescent symbols lose their protective power and the wounded are left to die.

In Bahrain, the security services began entering hospitals and health centres to round up protesters, with the inevitable result that the injured stayed away. After the minister of health banned ambulances from leaving the main Salmaniya hospital to collect the injured, doctors and medical staff protested – giving the security services a new excuse to harass and arrest them. The doctors were appalled at the injuries they were having to treat and the authorities were anxious to cover up evidence of the use of live rounds on unarmed civilians.

Almost 50 doctors and nurses have been arrested since mid-March, some of whom have been held for more than a month. Vivienne Nathanson, the head of ethics at the British Medical Association. says the scale of the crackdown on medical staff is unprecedented. "In the past the red cross and red crescent were seen as protective. Now increasingly they are seen as a target for rebel forces and sometimes governments."

Despite these flagrant abuses, the international medical community has remained practically silent. Physicians for Human Rights has done most, calling on the UN to monitor breaches of medical neutrality. But national medical organisations must join forces and sound a global alarm.

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