Reconciliation in the Balkans
Health can be a good basis for establishing contact between the parties to a conflict, and doctors and medical associations may well play a role in promoting peace. This is stated in, for example, the document Health as a bridge to peace, adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1998. (2). Moreover, doctors are ethically obligated to treat all patients equally, irrespective of their ethnicity and nationality (3). In wars and other conflicts, we believe that doctors should help put pressure on the authorities to ensure that the population is provided with humanitarian aid.
Against this background, the committee arranged a conference on medical activity and human rights in Oslo in May 1993. The situation in the former Yugoslavia was a key topic at the conference. UN sanctions had been imposed on Serbia, and war raged in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a result of the conference, it was decided that the Norwegian Medical Association, represented by its human rights committee, should take the initiative to convene the medical associations in the new republics for a meeting in Oslo. Objectives included providing assistance to re-establish contact between the associations and discussing the humanitarian situation for the civilian population during the armed conflicts.
Even though the situation in the former Yugoslavia was turbulent, we succeeded in gathering representatives of all associations in Oslo in September 1993. Prior to the meeting, we had met all of them on a journey to the new republics of the former Yugoslavia (4). The participants represented countries that either had recently been or still were at war with each other, and some also reported to feel bitterness over having been let down by their colleagues in difficult times.
In personal conversations with us, the representatives of the various medical associations accused the other ethnic groups of violence and abuse. This notwithstanding, in the final document all associations committed to helping provide humanitarian aid to the civilian population, and they would report it if they discovered unequal access to health services on the basis of nationality or ethnicity (5). Such commitments can be difficult to live up to, and we were anxious to see whether the doctors would let their national and ethnic sympathies overrule their professional obligations. The local WHO offices in the region followed up the agreement stated in the final document, and nobody found any grounds to report violations of the ethical commitments (personal communication, Richard Alderslade, WHO’s Belgrade office).
During the period 1993 – 1997, the Norwegian Medical Association’s human rights committee had a total of five meetings with the medical associations in the former Yugoslavia. Over this period we could observe that the cooperation between the parties gradually improved. Currently, all the associations are members of or observers in international medical associations, and the need for specially designed forums has abated.