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Humanitarian Panel Probes Into Healthcare Challenges in Syria

By Caroline S. Engelmayer and Matthew J. Leifer, Contributing Writers

Humanitarian aid experts debated how to provide medical care in Syria at a panel at the Kennedy School of Government Thursday afternoon.

The panel aimed to examine how aid workers—many of whom have not received formal training in conflict resolution—negotiate access to various resources, including water and medical supplies, for people living in war-torn countries.

The panel, titled "Humanitarian Negotiation Series: Protection of Medical Personnel and Operations at the Frontline," was moderated by Claude Bruderlein, a lecturer on global health at the School of Public Health. It featured Michael VanRooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, François Stamm, head of the delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Adrienne Fricke, a senior fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

“The survival of millions of people around the world depends on the capacity of individuals who would deny they’re actually negotiators, who actually never followed any training,” Bruderlein said. “This is the gap we’re trying to fill.”

VanRooyen noted the critical role that medical workers play in advocating for the rights of their patients.

“The role of a clinician, a physician, a surgeon, a nurse, an immunization worker on the front line is the most direct form of humanitarian negotiation that happens, and they work at it everyday,” he said.

According to Fricke, medical professionals in Syria are among the first aid workers not to be considered neutral parties in war, and are often intentionally attacked in battle.

“I think that one of the hallmarks of the conflict in Syria since 2011 has been the targeting of healthcare and health professionals and it may be that we’ve all heard it so frequently that it no longer resonates, but it is a big deal,” she said.

Ahmad Tarakji, president of the Syrian American Medical Society, attended the event and shared details of his experiences visiting Syrian hospitals during the war in an open discussion following the moderated panel.

Tarakji said he believed some humanitarian laws became ineffective in Syria because there were relatively few protests when human rights violations were first committed during the outbreak of the war.

“The challenge that we [faced was], as the community and society were being disintegrated in Syria, there were only smaller groups of people who stood up for the political and for the civil society,” he said.

Event attendee Jonas Brunschwig was struck by the severity of the situation in Syria.

“It’s a pretty doomed situation that needs some serious figuring out,” he said. “It sounds like there are some great people thinking about it but it’s not an easy nut to crack.”

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