War, global health and human rights: drawing inspiration from the Russia-Ukraine crisis

Author: Abasiodiong Ubong Udoakpan
Data Protection Advisor, Researcher and a Human Rights Lawyer

Introduction

The first principle of health is life and war is a direct threat to life. For millions of people worldwide, avoiding and not only surviving war is the predominant objective in their daily existence. Sadly, the situation in Eastern Europe creates a global crisis for public health, therefore, ending the war would be a major step towards the promotion of the health and well-being of persons in this region. The challenge presented by this ongoing regional conflict also marks a crucial opportunity to prioritize human rights and public health concerns in ongoing foreign policy and diplomatic efforts by concerned nation-states. Ergo, this article seeks to explore the human rights threats that are associated with the Russia-Ukraine conflict especially as it relates to public health.

Destruction/Lack of Access to Health Care Facilities and Displacement

The devastating effects of war can be very grievous to health care. The harsh realities of war range from damages to the health infrastructure to the displacement of citizens. During this crisis, Russian forces have begun indiscriminately bombing civilian targets, including in a missile strike that destroyed the Pavlusenko maternity hospital, killing at least two people.[1] This carnage puts more pressure on the health care system in Ukraine, which faces a possibility of total collapse if the war rages on. It is worthy of note that attacks on healthcare facilities and workers amount to a breach of medical neutrality and it is also a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law. We are also not left in doubt that access to health care will be extremely difficult in these times.

Globally, the latest figures from the UN estimate that around 70 million people are currently displaced due to war. However, as at 9 March 2022, about 2 million people have now fled Ukraine due to the Russian invasion, according to the United Nations. At this rate, the situation looks set to become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century, and UNHCR is mobilizing resources to respond as quickly and effectively as possible.

This displacement can be incredibly detrimental to health, with no safe and consistent place to sleep, wash, and shelter from the elements. It also removes a regular source of food and proper nutrition. As well as impacting physical health, war adversely affects the mental health of both those actively involved in conflict and civilians. Forced migration creates further physical and mental health problems during transit, in an enforced encampment, and because of restricted entitlement to health care in countries hosting refugees.

Access to Food, Water and Sanitation

War inevitably reduces access to clean water, food, and sanitation which are critical for a country. According to a UN report on the conflict, Ukraine’s citizens have the most difficulty with accessing improved water sources, uninterrupted water access and materials for water purification. Additional issues that households experience include immediate access to trucked-in water and bottled water in kiosks and shops.[2] Of particular concern is the unhygienic storage of water, such as in bath tubs and containers without lids, which create additional health concerns. This could further increase the risk of contracting communicable diseases.

Mental Health

The negative impact on the mental health of both countries cannot be overemphasized. People who live through war face psychologically challenging situations, often being uprooted from their homes, facing food insecurity, and constant fear of death and injury to name a few. This inevitably causes damage to a person’s psychological well-being and can exacerbate existing problems. Sadly, protracted conflict in Ukraine could lead to negative consequences for the population’s wellbeing, and the need for mental health and psychosocial support remains paramount.

Recommendations- A Road to Peace

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is multi-faceted, however, peace may be reestablished in various ways. Negotiations between the two, with or without an intermediary, may resolve the situation. Peace may be reestablished by these negotiations or by the pressure of international diplomacy. A return to lasting peace depends not only on the cessation of hostilities but especially on a recognition of the causes that led to the conflict. In international conflicts, the solution is usually political, such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the UN plays a primary role. In the longer term, the maintenance of a lasting peace will involve socioeconomic change. There is also a need for the UN to link emergency interventions to a long-term strategy based on development and rehabilitation.

It is also recommended that where the United Nations Charter and human rights are being violated such as in Ukraine, the United Nations should devote equal attention to all victims of the conflict irrespective of race. There is serious concern about the treatment given to African nationals and people of African descent at the borders of Ukraine, some of whom are not allowed to cross and move to safety. Thus, European countries should take steps to resolve this situation as all people have a right to cross international borders during times of conflict. African countries should also fast track measures to ensure that Africans who seek to return home are brought back safe and sound.

Finally, it is recommended that as international actors, including the United Nations, the donor organizations, the NGOs, and humanitarian groups weigh in on the situation in Ukraine, they should be preoccupied with peacemaking with sincerity of purpose and the rehabilitation of war-torn Ukraine. Measures should also be put in place to rehabilitate and also facilitate the reconstruction and development of Ukraine in the long run.

[1] Brian Till: ‘Is Russia targeting Ukraine’s Hospitals?’ https://newrepublic.com/article/165565/russia-bombs-ukraine-hospitals accessed 4 March 2022.

[2] Ukraine- Situation Reports, https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/ukraine/card/49C1na6B2J/ accessed 5 March 2022.

About the Author:
Abasiodiong Udoakpan is a Data Protection Advisor, Researcher and a Human Rights Lawyer with an LL.M in International Human Rights. His research blueprint centers on the intersection of International Law, Human Rights and Global Health & Policy with interests in Mental Health, Climate Change, Food & Drug.

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