Health professionals as peace advocates in areas of conflict

July 27, 2000

Peace building through health initiatives

Health initiatives can be successfully used as peace-building mechanisms in war-affected zones, according to research in this week's BMJ.

In the last of four BMJ articles looking at conflict and health, researchers at the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University, Canada examine the links between health and peace and show evidence of effectiveness for some health-peace initiatives.

They argue that conflict between groups may be resolved, lessened or contained by health care professionals in several ways. For instance, doctors are able, at times, to gain access to the highest political offices and may well be placed to undertake "medical diplomacy" activities such as mediation and high level advocacy. Similarly, shared health goals may create a peace-building opportunity. For example, in the 1980s, fighting was suspended for three days each year in El Salvador for the immunisation of children, following negotiations between government, the army and rebel forces. Not only did the levels of measles, tetanus and polio drop dramatically, the dialogue contributed to the achievement of peace.

Healthcare workers have been successful in promoting peace and security by reporting human rights violations and by redefining conflict as a public health problem, add the authors. For example, the strategies used by physicians to redefine nuclear war as a public health issue contributed to a shift away from the Cold War.

With the recent surge of interest in "peace-building" as a theme of foreign policy, such evidence demonstrates the considerable influence of health care professionals in helping to initiate and spread peace in areas of conflict, conclude the authors.

Joanna Santa-Barbara, Centre for Peace Studies, McMaster University, 1280 Main St West, Hamilton, ON, Canada L8S 4K1 Email:


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