Guest Editorial

Medical ethics and human rights in wartime

George J Annas


The ethical obligations of physicians to respect and protect the human rights of all people are well articulated in international medical ethics statements. Dr Wouter Basson was charged with violating this medical ethics norm during the time he was in the military working with Project Coast and Delta G. In the author’s opinion, the most important and instructive conclusion of the PCC, charged with deciding whether he should retain his licence to practise medicine, is that if a military physician wants to put military actions before his or her medical obliation to do no harm, he or she must resign from being a physician. Restricting physicians who have engaged in crimes against humanity from practising medicine is done not to punish them (that is the purpose of a criminal trial), but to protect the public and the medical profession. Physicians are licensed by the state to practise medicine for the benefit of the public and individual patients, and we must all trust ourselves and our health to them. When that trust is betrayed and physicians use their skills to harm at the direction of the state, it is a matter of protecting the integrity of the medical profession, as well as a form of self-defence for potential patients, that their privilege to practise a healing profession be revoked or restricted.

Author's affiliations

George J Annas, George J Annas Warren Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights, Boston University School of Public Health, Mass, USA

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Medical ethics; Human rights; Dr Wouter Basson; Professional Conduct Committee (PCC)

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2015;105(4):240. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.9529

Article History

Date submitted: 2015-02-23
Date published: 2015-03-09

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