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October 26, 2014

No middle ground in the Middle East

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Dr Ruairi Hanley

Dr Ruairi Hanley believes the RCSI and the IMO must speak out against the treatment of Irish-trained doctors currently imprisoned by the authorities in Bahrain

As many readers may be aware, a number of doctors are currently sitting in jail cells in Bahrain awaiting the verdict of a military court. At least one of these medical professionals is potentially facing the death penalty.

Their sole ‘crime’ was to treat those patients who were injured in anti-government protests, in accordance with the Hippocratic oath and the Geneva Convention. According to Amnesty International, a total of 47 healthcare workers remain in custody as of May 26.

The case of the Bahraini doctors has generated global press coverage but, with a few honourable exceptions such as Phoenix Magazine, their plight has been largely ignored by the Irish national media.

Bizarre silence

This bizarre silence is extraordinary when one considers that several of these colleagues graduated from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and have worked in the Irish health system.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has also apparently washed its hands of this situation. It was reported in Phoenix that the DFA apparently stated that as these men were not Irish citizens, it was nothing to do with them.

I have personally written to a number of TDs in the hope that they will put Dáil questions to Minister Eamon Gilmore on this issue, with the aim of having the matter raised at the highest levels in Europe. Furthermore, I believe that our Bahraini colleagues should be offered political asylum and full citizenship of Ireland when released.

This would be a decent and honourable act by our nation. But I have a bad feeling that our leaders are far more likely to do nothing.

Regardless of the attitude of the DFA, I would contend that the behaviour of the RCSI is the most disappointing aspect of this whole affair. Despite being repeatedly asked to publicly condemn the treatment of their graduates, this illustrious institution has (at the time of writing) refused to utter so much as a word of protest, instead stating in The Irish Times on May 16: “we do not comment on political matters or individual cases.”

The RCSI is in a unique position to influence events. They currently run a medical school in Bahrain, which enjoys the support of the regime that has thrown our colleagues into prison. As such, the College might well be in a good position to raise the outrageous treatment of local healthcare workers at the highest level.

Regrettably, I can only conclude from their statements to date that the RCSI is apparently more interested in preserving its relationship with the Bahraini government than it is in defending the right of doctors to practise medicine in accordance with the ethics and laws of their profession.

For the record, Dr Ghassan Dhaif, Dr Basim Dhaif and Dr Ali al-Ekri are among the RCSI graduates currently enduring military custody while those who educated them choose to say nothing. If one of these doctors is blindfolded, put against a wall and shot at dawn, will the College then decide to finally criticise those responsible? Or will they instead maintain their current policy of not rocking the boat?

Geneva Convention

In my opinion, the behaviour of the RCSI has brought shame not just on their own institution, but also on all of Irish medicine. I would also argue that any academic body incapable of defending basic medical ethical principles, such as those enshrined in the Geneva Convention, has no business educating future doctors.

However, we must also recognise that what Phoenix Magazine rightly describes as “the silence of Irish medics” extends beyond St Stephen’s Green. My old chums in the Irish Medical Organisation also appear to have lost the ability to speak out on this subject.

I clearly recall in 2009 attending the IMO conference where delegates enthusiastically supported motions condemning the state of Israel for its actions in the Gaza Strip. Yet in 2011, the Bahraini government mysteriously escaped censure. Indeed, if Ghassan, Basim and Ali had been arrested by the Israeli Defence Forces for treating Palestinians, I have no doubt there would have been wails of left-wing outrage from the 5-star hotel in Killarney a few weeks ago. But then the RCSI does not have a college in Tel Aviv.

Even allowing for the political priorities of conference delegates, there is nothing whatsoever to prevent the IMO, or any other medical body, from making a public statement condemning the actions of the Bahraini leadership. In the UK, the Royal College of Surgeons has already done so. In Ireland, silence is seemingly regarded as the best policy.

Unfortunately, I feel this episode has revealed much about the modern character of our profession. A culture of hierarchy, obsequiousness and refusal to criticise those in authority has slowly evolved in Irish medicine. I have regularly encountered this mind-set among my generation of doctors; however, I always assumed that my more senior colleagues, particularly those involved in education, remained fearless defenders of professional honour, courage and legally-supported ethical integrity.

Now I am no longer so sure.

I never thought I would find myself writing this, but today I am ashamed to call myself an Irish doctor.