Human rights organization operated by physician activists and supported by the Ford Foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Tides Foundation
Critical of U.S. impact on human rights in countries affected by Cold War conflicts
Has accused the Bush administration of torture, mass killing, and experimentation on detainees
Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- with an office also in Washington, DC -- Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to “mobiliz[ing] heath professionals to advance health, dignity and justice” by investigating alleged human-rights abuses around the world and pursuing their resolution. To validate reports of such abuses, PHR stages “fact-finding missions” in which forensic and medical investigations are performed. The data yielded by these probes can be used in national or international courts as evidence of war crimes or crimes against humanity, and may also be used outside judicial systems as leverage for applying pressure on political entities.
PHR began in the early 1980s when Jonathan Fine, a Boston physician and activist, invited several other doctors with a record of human-rights activism to join his nascent group, the American Committee for Human Rights. The invitees included Jane Green Schaller, Carola Eisenberg, Jack Geiger, Robert Lawrence, and John Constable. The group changed its name to Physicians for Human Rights in 1986. Prior to his work with PHR, Dr. Fine had worked extensively with Physicians for Social Responsibility, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the Medical Action Group.
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 facilitating the commission of many human-rights abuses. Thus, the organization's activism tended to focus on incidents associated with American intervention while disregarding the atrocities of Communist, socialist, terrorist, or other forces that opposed U.S. foreign policy. For instance, in one of its earliest investigations, PHR charged the U.S.-supported anti-Communist government of El Salvador with gross human-rights violations during that country’s civil war, yet documented very little of the brutality perpetrated by leftist rebel forces in their prosecution of that same war. Similarly, PHR investigated U.S. ally South Korea's use of tear gas against internal demonstrators in the early 1980s, but did not devote similar scrutiny to the Communist regime in North Korea.
In 1997, PHR was a co-recipient -- along with Jody Williams, Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, Medico International, Mines Advisory Group, and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation -- of a controversial Nobel Peace Prize for its campaign against landmines in places such as Cambodia and Somalia. Notably, PHR neither spoke out against nor investigated the impact of Communist forces in those regions, such as the Khmer Rouge and the Siad Barre dictatorship. Since the 1990s, this selectivity by PHR has abated somewhat, although the organization continues to focus its investigations disproportionately on areas with a history of significant U.S. involvement (e.g., Iraq, Bosnia, and the former Yugoslavia).
PHR has accused the United States of human-rights violations of many types. Among the leading objects of the organization's condemnation are the allegedly poor conditions in American prisons and immigration-detention centers. PHR also objects to physician participation in capital-punishment executions in the U.S. In 2002, the organization investigated a mass grave site in Dasht-e-Leili, Afghanistan and accused the Bush administration not only of being responsible for the deaths of those who were buried there, but also of thwarting an open investigation into U.S. culpability. In addition, PHR accused the Bush administration of having tortured detainees in a variety of ways.
Among PHR's major initiatives today are the following:
The Global Health Action Campaign (GHAC) "aims to establish the right to health" vis a vis such issues as HIV/AIDS, women's health, and harm reduction. Directing its resources chiefly to "poor and marginalized populations," this initiative seeks to eliminate the "tremendous inequity in health" that "exists not only between developed and developing countries but within these settings – between rich and poor, men and women, urban and rural populations, and so on."
The Darfur Survival Campaign "mobilizes health professionals, students, and members of the general public to press for urgently needed security in Darfur," the Sudanese region where hundreds of thousands of people have died in the ongoing genocide.
The Campaign Against Torture (CAT) by U.S. personnel "began with an immediate response to the first allegations of torture at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay." According to PHR, "it became clear that the government had authorized and implemented a widespread regime of psychologically abusive interrogation methods that could only be characterized as torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment." The CAT works "to reverse administration policy and legal opinions that support the use of physical and psychological torture by the CIA."
In addition, PHR laments the "racial and ethnic stereotyping and bias in medical care" that occurs in the United States "across the full spectrum of disease categories and medical and surgical procedures." "The pervasive if sometimes unconscious discrimination," adds PHR, "is part of a health care system that leaves 40 million Americans without health insurance, and guarantees that U.S. minorities live sicker and die younger than whites." By PHR's reckoning, "discrimination endangers not only patients, but also the egalitarian commitments and ethics of medicine ..."