Almost every day we wake up to news coverage showing the devastating consequences of violations of human rights, but what we are often not shown is the dedicated work of the vast network of people fighting against these injustices. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is an international organisation dedicated to stopping mass atrocities and acts that cause severe physical and mental harm to individuals. It does so by collecting irrefutable medical and scientific evidence of these crimes and using this evidence to speak out against perpetrators, and bring them to justice. “We document human rights abuses in order to help prevent them, but also to ensure that no world leader is above the law. We use the power of scientific evidence to bring about change,” says Donna McKay, executive director of the organisation.
PHR focuses on documenting and exposing: torture and mass atrocities (crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes); stopping rape in war; and preventing the persecution of health workers. Abuses are investigated using methodologies such as forensic science, medical and psychological evaluations of survivors and epidemiological research that involves surveying entire populations to reveal the prevalence of abuse. “When doctors are trained, not only to heal, but to use their skills to document evidence of a crime, survivors have a real chance at justice,” says McKay. The results are documented in reports, court-admissible evidence, peer-reviewed scientific articles and testimonies.
PHR works with partners around the world, to document and call attention to human rights violations, and its data is relied upon by leaders at the highest levels of global policy-making and humanitarian response. “It’s easy to speak truth to power when that truth is backed up with evidence,” said Robert S. Lawrence, a founding member of PHR. So far, the organisation has had great success. Since its founding in 1986, PHR has worked to stop human rights violations in over 60 countries, and, in 1997, it shared the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to rid the world of the scourge of landmines. In 2015, advocacy by PHR played a major role in pushing the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to release the executive summary of its report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices.
Just this year, forensic evidence gathered by PHR helped convict former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for leading a campaign of terror against civilians during the Bosnian War.
In addition, PHR has helped lead the first ever lawsuit against the Kenyan Government for failure to prevent sexual violence following the 2007 elections. It is also supporting the effort to map and register mass gravesites in Afghanistan and has been actively documenting the destruction of Syria’s healthcare system since the start of the conflict. PHR has been an Oak partner since 2008. Check out this video explaining its work and its website.