Bashar Assad is a dictator. He’s also a doctor. However, by no means does
Assad’s behavior appear consonant with the latter profession. I propose that a
global effort be mounted immediately to strip him of his status as a
Assad graduated from the medical school of Damascus University
in 1988 then worked briefly in Syria’s military health care system.
years later, Assad studied ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in London.
Following the death of his older brother, Bassel, in a motor vehicle accident,
Assad was called back home and groomed to lead his country.
In 2000, when
Assad assumed the presidency of Syria, many hoped that the well-educated,
clean-shaven, English-speaking scion would rule openly. Official press releases
even emphasized that, as head of the Syrian Computer Society, he introduced his
country to the Internet. From the outset of his rule, however, Assad has
functioned as a tyrant.
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and
Amnesty International document that, during Assad’s reign, the Syrian secret
police consistently tortured, imprisoned and killed political
Not including fatalities from use of chemical weapons, the
death toll in the current civil war is widely acknowledged to be approximately
Those numbers hardly personify primum non nocere, the
Latin maxim that every first-year medical student internalizes as a reminder to
be sensitive to harm that can ensue from interaction between human
In 2010, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Cara
Lesser emphasized that professional standards for physicians are predicated on
an “...overarching ethos – or value set – and those values need to be
cultivated.” Lesser and her co-authors underscored that the medical profession
must be more than a theoretical jumble of ideals since professionalism is
manifest in the practice of observable behaviors.
publication in 2002, the Physician Charter on Medical Professionalism was widely
adopted around the world. From that departure point, experts drafted various
guidelines for professional behavior, each edition emphasizing the principles of
integrity, accountability, compassion and ethical conduct. It is impossible to
conclude that Assad comports with these most basic tenets of the profession of
Violation of rudimentary precepts is grounds for immediate
suspension from the practice of medicine.
But we are not contemplating
whether to allow Dr. Assad to remove cataracts at Aleppo’s neighborhood surgical
Our question is whether a mass murderer should bear the
honorable title of medical doctor.
MEDICINE HAS traditionally safeguarded
itself through self-regulation.
We advise budding physicians to police
themselves, implying that if they create a vacuum of supervision, then external
authorities will step in to oversee healthcare professionals. Self-regulation
sounds pragmatic but is never fully enforced because of a hidden code among
physicians that construes bearing witness against colleagues as being
distasteful, if not repugnant.
Unlike the legal profession, medicine does
not have a clear mechanism for disbarment proceedings to investigate the conduct
of its members. On the micro level, how many physicians are suspended or even
sanctioned? Meanwhile, on the macro level, the absence of peer-initiated censure
in medicine is much more heinous. For example, only in 2012 did the German
Medical Association, through the Nuremberg Declaration, acknowledge that many of
their predecessors experimented on, and killed, prisoners based not on outside
force but on personal enthusiasm. Seven decades is an unacceptable duration for
In 1993, a group of medical ethicists at Boston
University called for the establishment of an international medical tribunal to
clearly delineate prohibited physician conduct and to create a mechanism for
punishing those who engage in such conduct. There is still no authorized entity
that is capable of adjudicating crimes against humanity perpetrated by
In today’s Syria, where no simple demarcation exists between
“good guys” and “bad guys,” it does appear difficult to unravel countervailing
forces and interests.
Indeed, the member states of the United Nations
convened this past week at the General Assembly to address those intricate
matters. But rather than creating resolutions at the Security Council, perhaps
another UN agency – the World Health Organization – should be taking up the
issue of the physician- leader of Syria. Proper channels must be quickly devised
to revoke Bashar Assad’s professional credentials; an action that will have both
symbolic and pragmatic value.
The body politic of the medical
establishment dare not press its own mute button once more. The time is here for
all international medical societies and associations to oust Assad.The
author is a professor of oncology at Tel Aviv University and the chairman of the
Institute of Radiotherapy at Tel Aviv Medical Center, is the co-founder of the
NGO Life’s Door.
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