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Originally published in Tuttoscienze of LA STAMPA, 1 June 2005

One of the greatest achievements of humankind is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Proclaimed in 1948 by the United Nations, it establishes that all human beings have the right to life, liberty, not to be tortured, and to a standard of living adequate to their health and well-being, and so on. Nonetheless, the battle for human rights is far from won: suffice it to say that today, of the more than 6 billion people on the planet, 240 million - that is, 1 in 25 – are forced to leave their homes or countries to escape extreme poverty, wars, political or religious persecution, racism and ecological destruction. Can science play any role in this battle? We spoke about this topic with Susannah Sirkin, Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a Boston-based non-governmental organization, which, although quite “young”, has already been awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace, in 1997, together with some important human rights organizations.

Doctor Sirkin, you define your organization as “an alliance of science and conscience”. How did this alliance begin?

In the mid ‘80s, certain highly respected individuals in the American medico-scientific community came into direct contact with some extremely serious human rights violations. Some of them had gone to El Salvador, or to South Africa during apartheid, on missions promoted by universities or by the National Academy of Sciences. Others had found themselves in the difficult position of going to Chile to ask for the release of the Chilean Medical Association’s President and Vice-President, who had been arrested by Pinochet’s forces for opposing the torture practised by his regime. Witnessing brutality of every kind and observing its consequences on the mental and physical health of entire populations led to the conviction that doctors need their own organization, not only to bring scientific skills to the research on human rights, but also to mobilize the powerful medical profession. And so, in 1986, PHR was born.

What’s the difference between PHR and other organizations, like Medicins sans Frontiers?

MSF is a humanitarian organization, that is it treat patients. We don’t treat patients, we do research and mobilize physicians and health professionals.

When you say “human rights research”, what do you mean precisely?

I mean solid scientific research, which we publish in journals like The Lancet, The New England Medical Journal and JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. Before PHR started its work, the standard human rights research involved interviews. Basically, it was journalism. But, unfortunately, having interviews or taking photographs and writing reportages aren’t enough. If an organization wants to be credible and put pressure on governments and international institutions, it needs to have data and irrefutable proof. And this is why we use scientific skills and methods to document human rights violations.

Which methods, precisely?

It depends on the problem we’re working on. When we investigate genocides or war crimes, our goal is to collect scientific evidence of the massacre, so we use forensic pathologists and anthropologists and all of the so-called crime experts. Whereas when we studied the condition of women under the Talibans, we used physicians, epidemiologists and data experts to monitor how the physical and mental health of women deteriorate under a regime that prevents them from socializing, from having access to education, careers, and so on.

How did scientific journals react to your work? I mean, your research is quite different from that usually published by those journals.

At first, they objected: this is not science, this is politics. And sometimes they even rejected our articles. But over the years we have gained the respect of many journal editors, thanks to both the quality of our work and to the fact that some of our founders - people like Jack Geiger of the City University of New York, Robert Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins University, Carola Eisenberg of the Harvard Medical School in Boston - are highly respected within the American scientific community. And what is interesting is that our research methods are now spreading to the human rights community, thus contributing to “raising the bar” of human rights activism.

Yes, I appreciate the scientific value of our work, but did it achieve any practical results?

Well, of course it depends on what you mean by “practical results”. For example, once we have the proof of a genocide or of Taliban repression in Afghanistan, we don’t have the authority to arrest those responsible for the genocide or to stop the Talibans: it is the international community that must act. In any case, we don’t publish articles just to do good research. We publish articles to achieve specific changes, like to get a war criminal arrested or to lobby the government to change a certain law. For example, in March 2005 we achieved the abolition of the juvenile death penalty in the U.S. after a long campaign conducted together with many other associations. And what is interesting is that to achieve that abolition, it was not enough to argue that international law explicitly prohibits the juvenile penalty on legal and ethical grounds, that only the United States, Iran and Congo allow it, and that since 1985, the U.S. has executed more juvenile offenders than the rest of the world combined. It was necessary to demolish the false scientific assumption that 16- and 17-year-olds possess the cognitive and emotional maturity of adults.

And how were you able to demolish this assumption?

By mobilizing neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and so on - many of them pre-eminent- so that they could demolish that false assumption and participate in our obstinate campaign to pressure the American government.

Do you mobilize physicians simply in order to acquire the “scientific proof” on which to base your campaigns?

No, we aim to establish a human rights culture in a profession like the medical one, which can actually make a difference. By mobilizing physicians, we seek to achieve three goals: develop a human rights curriculum for doctors, which is why we have established a course on medicine and human rights in collaboration with the Harvard Medical School, one of the best medical schools in the world; help colleagues around the world who experience human rights violations, as happened to the President and Vice-President of the Chilean Medical Association, who probably would have been killed if their influential foreign colleagues hadn’t intervened; and finally, we aim to prevent and condemn the participation of doctors and health professional in human rights violations.

In effect, there are sad precedents of doctors and scientists participating in extremely serious human rights violations: for example, Nazi scientists conducted terrible experiments on Jews, and Japanese doctors instituted a large-scale biological weapons programme by testing those weapons on Chinese civilians.

Yes, but with reference to today, we can say that some violations, like torturing prisoners, are possible in part thanks to the complicity of doctors, who provide military forces with the expertise to torture prisoners, or falsify medical certificates so that there is no mention of torture or even death under torture. For example, the role of physicians in the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq is not at all clear. And we continue to say that those allegedly responsible must be investigated and very severely punished, as this complicity is absolutely incompatible with the medical profession.

Concluding, how do you bear the burden of a job which involves witnessing brutality day after day?

Well, it is a heavy job and what is heavy is to realize that such a job still has to be done in the 21st century, as we are still here speaking about genocide, torture, and so on. But the job had to be done in any case, so that sooner or later it won’t be necessary anymore...