The Helsinki Policy Forum convened a high-level online discussion of its Health Working Group, 17th January 2022, to discuss the importance of the Global Health for Peace Initiative (GHPI). It was opened by H.E. Dr. Ahmed Al Saidi, the Minister of Health for the Sultanate of Oman and attended by over 40 representatives from 17 countries and organisations, and the WHO.

The GHPI, jointly developed by Oman and Switzerland, aims to structure and scale efforts to utilise health as a means of reducing tensions and building peace overall, and especially in fragile and conflict-affected or violent settings. Underpinning the initiative, Dr. Al Saidi explained, is the idea “that health and peace are intertwined and that there is no health without peace. Therefore, it stresses the importance of contributing towards peacebuilding in health intervention settings, as peace is a human right and a most basic prerequisite for sustainable health and development.” The GHPI will shortly be presented to the 150th Executive Board (EB) meeting of the WHO, where it is hoped it will be endorsed.

The need for health cooperation, especially in fragile and conflict zones, is unfortunately a chronic issue and is growing. It is estimated that 1.8 billion people already live in fragile, conflict affected or violent settings. By 2030, it is believed that half of the world’s poor people will live in such settings. In such contexts, not only are people directly injured, disabled, and killed by violence, but healthcare systems are badly disrupted. This can lead to disease outbreaks and unnecessary deaths from preventable illnesses.

The scale of the challenge requires immediate action as both a moral and practical necessity. Health is foundational to every aspect of a society’s wellbeing. If billions of people around the world cannot access essential healthcare, then they will be less able to succeed educationally or economically.  This poses a significant threat to international peace and stability and highlights the need to place health at the heart of the global agenda. There can be no peace without health, and no health without peace.

However, there are still reasons for optimism. Efforts to place a greater global emphasis on health may have inadvertently been strengthened by Covid-19. While the pandemic has been the worst public health crisis in a century, it has starkly exposed that in health, no one is safe until everyone is safe, and that health crises do not respect borders. This has led to a greater sense of international solidarity and a growing commitment from policymakers to prioritise health.

Stemming from the WHO’s Health for Peace approach, alternatively known as the Health and Peace approach, the GHPI was endorsed as an important and valuable framework for facilitating cooperation on health, especially in conflict affected areas. While health must be protected from being politicised, the fact that it does represent a common interest of all, as it can provide a unique opportunity for dialogue and cooperation, even between combatants.

The 150th EB can be a milestone for the GHPI agenda. From this meeting, the hope is that health for peace efforts will reach a new scale, with practical initiatives identified and implemented. One area of priority that came up during the discussion was ensuring the protection for healthcare workers in conflict zones, and accountability for those who violate this principle.