Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is an international nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to “mobiliz[ing] health professionals” around the world to “advance health, dignity and justice” by investigating allegations of “mass atrocities and severe human rights violations” including murder, torture, rape, starvation, forced displacement, and military attacks against civilians. To verify reports of such abuses, PHR conducts “fact-finding missions” in which its experts employ methods and technologies associated with epidemiology, medical and psychological evaluations, autopsies, forensic anthropology, and crime-scene analysis. The data yielded by these probes can subsequently be used in national or international courts, tribunals, and truth commissions as evidence of war crimes or crimes-against-humanity. They also may be used outside the parameters of judicial systems, as leverage for the application of pressure on political entities. Since its inception, PHR has worked to thwart human rights abuses in more than 60 countries around the world.
PHR began in 1986 when Jonathan Fine, a Boston-based physician and activist, invited several other doctors with a record of social activism to join his American Committee for Human Rights, which Fine had established three years earlier. Fine and his fellow PHR co-founders alleged that U.S. support for various anti-Communist movements during the final decade of the Cold War was inciting the commission of human-rights abuses in a number of places. Thus, the organization’s activism tended to focus on incidents associated with American intervention while disregarding the atrocities committed by Communist, socialist, terrorist, or other forces that opposed U.S. foreign policy. For instance, in one of its earliest investigations, PHR charged that the American-supported anti-Communist government of El Salvador was “responsible for the majority” of human rights abuses during that country’s civil war, yet it documented very little of the brutality perpetrated by leftist rebel forces in their prosecution of that same war.In 1997, PHR was a co-recipient — along with Human Rights Watch and several other organizations — of a Nobel Peace Prize for its campaign to eliminate the use of landmines in numerous countries worldwide.Today, PHR focuses its attention chiefly on four major issues:
1) Torture: PHR alleges that “after 9/11, physicians and psychologists were enlisted by the U.S. government to design, implement, and monitor the use of [physical and mental] torture against detainees,” and that “survivors [of torture abroad] who seek asylum in the United States [commonly] face harsh treatment in U.S. detention centers.” During the early years of America’s post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, PHR said it was “clear that the [U.S.] government had authorized and implemented a widespread regime of psychologically abusive interrogation methods that could only be characterized as torture and [as] cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” of enemy combatants in detention. Moreover, PHR strenuously objects to what it portrays as the substandard living conditions in American prisons and immigrant-detention centers, and to the participation of physicians in capital-punishment executions in the United States.
2) Mass Atrocities: “The past twenty years,” said PHR in 2017, “have seen an increase in the severity and scope of mass atrocities, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. However, new mechanisms for prevention of mass atrocities have been created, including a genocide prevention office within the [United Nations], the adoption of the doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect‘ at the UN, and the International Criminal Court.”
3) Stopping Rape in War: PHR aims to draw attention to the fact that “women and girls across the world are sexually assaulted by government troops, rebel forces, and civilians,” especially “in wartime and [during] civil unrest.” “This violence is particularly acute in Central and East Africa,” says PHR, “where over 1.8 million women in the Congo have been raped.”
4) Persecution of Health Workers: “During civil unrest and armed conflict,” PHR laments, “health workers and patients often suffer deliberate attacks, including disappearance, beating and intimidation, deliberate attacks on hospitals, and destruction of hospital blood supplies.”
Since the mid-1990s, PHR has administered an Asylum Program that “provides direct service to asylum seekers, advocates for improved conditions in U.S. immigration detention centers, and documents human rights abuses that immigrants suffer in their home countries and in U.S. care.”
In February 2017, PHR denounced President Donald Trump for his assertion that torture “absolutely works” as a means of obtaining valuable intelligence, a claim described by PHR as “a jagged departure from fact, law, and morality.” “Within days of [Trump’s] inauguration,” PHR lamented, “the White House was already circulating a draft executive order to reopen CIA ‘black sites’ and review currently approved interrogation practices, presumably with a view to fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises to bring back waterboarding and a ‘hell of a lot worse.’”One of the more noteworthy individuals associated with PHR is Richard Goldstone, who currently sits on the organization’s board of directors. A notable former (1996-2002) PHR board member was Dr. Regina Benjamin, whom President Barack Obama appointed as U.S. Surgeon General in 2009. To view a list of all current PHR board members, click here.
In order to promote its political views and agendas as effectively as possible, PHR maintains a list of several dozen experts who deliver speeches, give interviews, and produce publications on its behalf.Over the years, PHR has received financial support from such major philanthropies as the Ford Foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, George Soros‘s Open Society Foundations, and the Tides Foundation.
For additional information on PHR, click here.