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Since my editorial explaining how the denial of failed asylum seekers' access to free hospital care violates their fundamental human rights was published, there has been a deafening silence from the BMA.1 Yet the BMA has a proud record of promoting human rights—its website claims that “Action by medical associations ... to ensure that resources [reach] the most vulnerable populations, have played an important role in supporting the realisation of the right to health.”2 Not for over 400000 failed asylum seekers living in the UK, it hasn't.
In contrast, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recently recommended that free secondary health care be provided “to comply with the laws of common humanity and the UK's international human rights obligations,” and an innovative Department of Health policy document that requires health professionals to respect human rights acknowledges the government's responsibility to comply with international treaties.3 4 The BMA's reticence, given its influence and reputation on human rights, means that it has become part of the problem
In 1984 the BMA withdrew from the World Medical Association (WMA) in protest at the reinstatement of a white dominated Medical Association of South Africa that supported apartheid. The protest was prompted by a representative organisation following government policy which violated international human rights law—a practice the BMA now seems to be emulating. In an ironic twist, the current South African government's deliberate obfuscation of the cause of AIDS violates the same international covenant and may ultimately be responsible for more suffering and death than apartheid.5 Now human rights are to be engaged as best practice,4 doctors will have to understand that international human rights law is there to be respected not cherry picked.
Competing interests: PH played a part in developing the General Comment 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.