Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) uses science and medicine to prevent severe human rights violations against individuals. The independent organization was founded in 1986 by a group of doctors, all who witnessed first hand the extent to which mass atrocities and extreme physical and mental harm were occurring around the world.
Among the founders is Dr. Jonathan Fine, who previously worked at the North End Neighborhood Health Center in Boston. Dr. Fine received a call in 1981 from a Harvard History Professor who asked if he knew a Spanish-speaking physician willing to fly to Chile as soon as possible. The individual was to lead a delegation seeking the release of 3 physicians who had disappeared by the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet. Dr. Fine found himself before a military judge in Valparaiso one week later. After an hour, Dr. Fine’s delegation was given permission to enter the prison and meet with the Chilean physicians. He described them as, “psychologically terrorized” and said, “…their testimonies were riveting, and so outraged me that within a few years I left my medical practice to do this work full time.”
Over the past 25 years, PHR has worked on a wide range of human rights issues in over 40 countries. Today, the organization focuses on torture, mass atrocities (including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide), the use of rape as a weapon of war, and the persecution of health workers.
The philosophy behind Physicians for Human Rights is that health professionals, with their specialized skills, ethical responsibility, and credible voice, are in a powerful position to stop human rights violations. Local human rights organizations, governments, the United Nations, international courts, and regional groups such as the African Union and European Union seek out the work and expertise of PHR.
There are three steps PHR takes to gather the necessary information for prevention and change. First, medical and scientific investigations are conducted using forensic science, medical and psychological examinations, and epidemiological research. Next, the evidence and human stories of the investigation are documented as reports, court-admissible evidence, testimony for governmental bodies, and various other forms for targeted audiences. Finally, the human rights experts of PHR meet with key representatives from governments, courts, or international groups to push for interventions, the prosecution of individuals, the drafting of legislation, and other calls to action. The following is work the organization has done:
- 1986 – Led investigations of torture in Chile, freeing heroic doctors
- 1988 – First to document the Iraqi use of chemical weapons on Kurds providing evidence for the prosecution of war criminals
- 1996 – Exhumed mass graves in the Balkans and Rwanda to provide evidence for International Criminal Tribunals
- 1997 – Won the Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines
- 2003 – Warned U.S. Policymakers about health and human rights conditions prior to and during the invasion of Iraq
- 2004 – Documented genocide and sexual violence in Darfur in support of international prosecutions
- 2010 – Investigated the epidemic of violence spread by Burma’s military junta
- 2011 – Championed the principle of noninterference with medical services in times of armed conflict and civil unrest during the Arab Spring
- 2012 – Trained doctors, lawyers, police, and judges in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, and Syria on the proper methods for collecting evidence in sexual violence cases
- 2013 – Won first prize in the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention with MediCapt, the mobile app that documents evidence of torture and sexual violence
– Ali Warlich