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Healthcare on the Battlefield

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In Search of a Legal and Ethical Framework

During armed conflicts healthcare workers or medical personnel often work under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. In such situations doctors and nurses, hospitals and medical units are at a serious risk of being attacked. Medical personnel also face complex ethical dilemmas when it comes to the treatment of patients from all sides of a conflict. This concerns military medical personnel in particular: as members of the armed forces, they face dilemmas of ‘dual loyalty’ where they may have to choose between the interests of their employer (the military) and the interests of their patients. This contribution looks at these issues from the perspectives of medical ethics, international humanitarian law (ihl), and human rights law (hrl). The article argues that the standards of medical ethics continue to apply during armed conflicts, and that during such situations medical ethics, ihl and hrl are mutually reinforcing. The principle of ‘medical neutrality’ and the human ‘right to health’ are positioned as key norms in this field. The article presents a normative framework for the delivery of health care on the battlefield in the form of a set of commitments for actors involved in the conflict, including the belligerent parties and (military) medical personnel.

Affiliations: 1: Associate Professor and Rosalind Franklin Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of Groningen,


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