Geneva Workshop Examines Global Health Implications of War on Terror

by Anne Reynolds and Lisa Eckenwiler

Geneva Workshop Examines Global Health Implications of War on Terror

The “War on Terror,” though a global undertaking, has been a part of the American national consciousness most keenly since September 11, 2001. 

Perhaps inevitably, the effort to eliminate identified terrorist organizations has brought about consequences far outside the scope of its aims. In May, a workshop co-organized by Lisa Eckenwiler, associate professor, Department of Philosophy and Department of Health Administration and Policy at George Mason, sought to identify and understand the global health implications of the conflict. Those assembled included a cadre of representatives from international humanitarian organizations including Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Norwegian Refugee Council, academics from universities such as McGill University, the University of Montreal, Penn State University, Australian National University, Essex University, and the University of Zurich, and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense.

Eckenwiler and her co-organizer, Matthew Hunt of McGill University, convened the workshop in Geneva, Switzerland, at the Brocher Foundation. The foundation, which also provided the funding, was established in 2006 to bring together scientists and other experts in fields touching on the ethical, legal, and social consequences of developing medical technology and health policies and practices. Its location in Geneva is an ideal venue for discussion of topics in global health, given that Geneva is home to a wide array of international health and humanitarian organizations. 

The areas of focus were four-fold: the health implications of counter-terrorism laws, policies, and operations, particularly for civilian populations; the moral experiences and ethical challenges facing health personnel (local, humanitarian, and military) in targeted areas; the ethical values and principles at stake for diverse moral agents; and the question of how best to incorporate ethical concern for global health into the decision making processes of national security strategists and policy makers.

Eckenwiler reported that the conference exceeded the organizers’ expectations. The participants confirmed that turning an ethical lens to the issues raised by the war on terror has the potential to bring to light problems (and potential solutions) that elude examination on a solely legal basis. She also noted that the conference highlighted the sobering magnitude of the issues.

Eckenwiler’s areas of expertise include bioethics, public health ethics, and global health ethics. When the story emerged in the press that the CIA had used a vaccination program in its effort to identify the location of Osama bin Ladin, Eckenwiler was astonished, even though the instrumentalization of health services for counterinsurgency objectives is not unprecedented (consider the military's use of medical care to "win hearts and minds"). But the real catalyst for her research was the surge in killing of vaccination workers in Pakistan, most of whom are women, out of suspicion that they represented foreign agents and interests. Most of Eckenwiler's research has focused on ethical concerns facing vulnerable populations, chiefly women.

After making appreciable progress in defining and understanding the scope of the issues and the complexity of problems facing various actors, Eckenwiler looks forward to engaging national security officials and policy makers.

"We are working on a number of writing opportunities for different audiences at the moment,” she says. “We'd like to host another workshop, involving more representatives from the national security community, aimed at discussing how to re-think the principle of proportionality, with the objective of incorporating risks of harm to health workers and health programs into the risk:benefit assessment processes. Our longer-term goal is to develop ethics tools for training and decision-making that can be used by national security officials and health workers affected by counterterror efforts."