Paper: Attacks on Healthcare: Attempting a Genealogy of the Present

Paper details

Paper authors Xavier Crombé
In panel on Rethinking the History of Attacks on Healthcare
Paper presenter(s) will be presenting In-Person / Online


This paper proposes an analysis of some of the short- and longer-term factors accounting for the emergence over the last ten to fifteen years of the mobilization around the theme of “attacks on healthcare”. I will argue that, much like the language of human rights had offered a venue to escape and challenge Cold War politics in the 1970s, mobilizing against “attacks on healthcare” has presented a varied set of actors with a platform to try and escape the logics of the War on Terror and to reaffirm the relevance of their action in the realm of health at a time of perceived mounting challenges. The ‘Arab Spring’ contributed to the mobilization’s momentum: state repression against local doctors caring for demonstrators and bearing witness gave, for a time, a non-Western voice and a form of grassroots legitimacy to the issue, allowed medical outsiders to lay a renewed claim for transnational solidarity on professional grounds and seemed to confirm early campaigners’ description of the phenomenon of attacks as a ‘new’ and ‘dangerous trend’. Yet, the language and favoured modes of action of the mobilization reflects different existing repertoires formulated in the past, thus belying the understanding of current forms of violence as unprecedented. ‘Medical human rights’, embodied by organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights, developed in the late 1970s and 80s out of concern with issues of torture and counterinsurgency tactics that have returned to the fore after 9/11. Present insistence on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) norms have likewise revived issues and debates left pending since the Two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions were adopted in 1977, the last formal attempt at IHL development. Finally, the understanding of violence as a public health issue, prominent in the new paradigm, was conceptualized in the 1990s in connexion with the global health security concept, a framework which, it may be argued, institutionalized a sanitary fault-line between the ‘West and the rest.’ Failure to acknowledge this genealogy tends to obscure conflicting policy outcomes among stakeholders and to leave unaccounted for in the statistical recording of ‘attacks’ the no-less real violence of distant policies of neglect and disruption on healthcare systems.



Xavier Crombé