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Physicians for Human Rights

Physicians for Human Rights
Physicians for Human Rights logo
Founded 1986
Type Non Profit
Focus human rights health
  • New York, NY

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a Augusto Pinochet. Since then, PHR has conducted pioneering research and field investigations in more than 40 countries.

PHR focuses on a set of core human rights violations:

  • Atrocities against civilians during armed conflict
  • Violence against women, especially rape as a weapon of war
  • Torture and abuse of detainees
  • Lack of access to health care due to racial, ethnic and gender discrimination

PHR works to prove the health consequences of human rights violations. It also uses its research for advocacy focused on demanding accountability for crimes and recommending critical policy changes.


  • History 1
  • How PHR Works 2
    • Harnessing Health Professionals 2.1
  • Torture 3
    • Global Torture 3.1
    • US Torture 3.2
    • Asylum Program 3.3
  • Mass Atrocities 4
    • Afghanistan 4.1
    • Bangladesh 4.2
    • Burma 4.3
    • Darfur 4.4
    • Zimbabwe 4.5
  • Rape in War 5
    • Sexual and Gender Based Violence 5.1
    • Sudan 5.2
  • Persecution of Health Workers 6
    • Bahrain 6.1
    • Iran: Free the Alaei doctors 6.2
  • National Student Program 7
  • Founders and Famous PHR Associates 8
  • External links 9
  • References 10


  • 1988 First to document Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Kurds [1]
  • 1996 Exhumed mass graves in the Balkans [2]
  • 1996 Produced critical forensic evidence of genocide in Rwanda [3]
  • 1997 Shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines [4]
  • 2003 Warned of health and human rights catastrophe prior to the invasion of Iraq [5]
  • 2004 Documented and analyzed the genocide in Darfur
  • 2005 Detailed the story of tortured detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay [6]
  • 2010 Showed how CIA medical personnel sought to improve waterboarding and other interrogation techniques that amount to torture [7]

How PHR Works

Health professionals working with PHR use forensic investigations such as autopsies, as well as medical and psychological evaluations, to determine what sort of abuse victims have endured. These evaluations can then be presented in court as evidence, or published in reports and brought to the attention of the media.

PHR also does advocacy work. This may include campaigning for the release of imprisoned health professionals, promoting policy change, or calling for governments to act in response to human rights violations.

Harnessing Health Professionals

PHR’s advocacy efforts are bolstered by more than 30,000 members who believe health professionals play a vital role in protecting human rights. To meet the growing demand for health professionals who are human rights investigators, PHR has developed three programs to train and deploy physicians, nurses, and other professionals.


Global Torture

PHR works to document and prevent torture globally, and participated in the development of the Istanbul Protocol, the first set of international guidelines for documenting torture. Dr. Vincent Iacopino, a senior medical advisor at PHR, was the lead author. The Istanbul Protocol provides a United Nations recognized template for investigating torture and presenting evidence of torture for prosecution.

US Torture

Following the use of torture on detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, and Afghanistan by US forces, PHR published multiple reports including a June 2010 report, Experiments in Torture, which showed how CIA medical personnel sought to improve waterboarding and other interrogation techniques that amount to torture. From 2005 to 2010, PHR published reports detailing the use of psychological torture on detainees, the authorization of enhanced interrogation techniques, the physical and mental torture endured by detainees, and first hand accounts of such torture. PHR also played a central role in seeking to end health professional involvement in investigations and detention settings that use torture. PHR continues to lead the campaign to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate all aspects of allegations of detainee abuse and ill-treatment in the years after 9/11/2001.[8]

Asylum Program

Through the Asylum Program PHR maintains a network of 400 volunteer health professionals across the country who help traumatized survivors of torture, war, and persecution seek safe haven in the United States. In the past year, PHR's volunteers provided evaluations for 380 asylum seekers and other people seeking relief from human rights abuses. PHR is now actively advocating for the health and well-being of detainees held in prison-like immigration centers throughout the US.[9]

Mass Atrocities

Since its inception, PHR has investigated mass atrocities such as genocide, mass killings, war crimes, and refugee crises. PHR's most recent investigations of mass atrocities have been in Burma, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, and Darfur.[10]

PHR launched the International Forensic Program (IFP) in 1987 to meet the growing demand for forensic investigations, evaluations, and specialized training to provide evidence of human rights violations such as disappearances and war crimes. PHR's scientists conduct autopsies and exhumations in the field and have testified at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia and at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In the past year alone, the IFP trained 288 human rights investigators from 52 countries.[11]


In September 2009, PHR initiated a three-year project with the support of the US State Department Human Rights Bureau to help the government and civil society of Afghanistan learn how to investigate mass graves and confront a long history of impunity for mass crimes. PHR also continues to investigate the alleged massacre of an estimated 2,000 Taliban prisoners buried in 2002 at Dasht-e-Leili — a crime whose cover-up PHR is currently analyzing in new documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.[12]


In 2010 PHR Deputy Director Richard Sollom and Dr. Parveem Parmar from Rohingya refugees escaping persecution in Burma, and then denied humanitarian aid in Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled Burma since 1991 and while roughly 28,000 have been granted refugee status by the Bangladeshi government, 200,000 have been denied this status and therefore denied access to UN aid. PHR has called for the Bangladeshi government to stop forcing the Rohingya back across the border and to grant them refugee status.[13]


In October 2009, PHR launched a multi-year investigation of human rights violations in Burma, specifically in Chin State. Based on the strength of the early conclusions, PHR was invited to closed-door presentations with UN delegations. PHR's report Life Under the Junta: Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity In Burma’s Chin State was released in January 2011.[14] The report provided extensive documentation of the rape, military violence, torture, killing, disappearances, forced labor, and religious persecution endured by the people of Chin State under a military junta.


In 2004 and 2005 PHR conducted interviews with Darfurian refugees in Chad, and found evidence of attempts to wipe out non-Arab populations. Subsequently, PHR released a report detailing the use of rape as a weapon of war in Darfur. A third report was published in 2009 in coalition with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative on the failure to protect Darfuri women and the continued sexual violence in the region.

Supported by evidence drawn from these three reports, PHR launched the Darfur Survival Campaign, mobilizing health professionals, students, and the general public to press for African Union and UN Peacekeeping troops to provide security in Darfur. The campaign also called for compensation and restitution for victims of the crisis.[15]


In 2008, PHR launched an investigation in Zimbabwe focusing on the effects of the collapsed health system. In 2009, PHR released a report titled Health in Ruins: PHR reports on the man-made Health Crisis in Zimbabwe, which stated that the Mugabe regime was responsible for the destruction of health, water, and sanitation systems in Zimbabwe and for denying its people the right to health. Following the collapse of the health sector, there were no functioning public hospitals and the cholera epidemic spread, killing upwards of 2000 people. PHR called for the United Nations and African Union to help stabilize the government and prevent further human rights abuses.[16]

Rape in War

PHR is part of the international movement to end the use of rape as a weapon of war and works with local partners to do so. PHR seeks to train doctors, nurses, and lawyers so that they may document evidence of rape and use the evidence in court; raise awareness about cultures of impunity that allow women to be raped, or excommunicate and shame women who have been raped; and enable reparation and justice for victims.

Sexual and Gender Based Violence

Currently, in 2011, PHR is focusing on Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan, five countries in Central Africa under investigation by the International Criminal Court for mass crimes, including sexual violence. PHR is currently investigating two forensic sexual violence cases in the DRC as test runs for the Sexual and Gender Based Violence program, which will involve all five countries. This project seeks to train health professionals and lawyers in investigating and documenting sexual violence, with the hope that such investigations will become more common and more effective, and can then be used to support ending mass rape in these countries.


In May 2009, PHR released a report Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women and convened a Capitol Hill briefing on sexual violence in Sudan and Chad. In late March 2010, the Sudan Envoy's Office acted on PHR’s recommendations and directed more than $2 million to support United Nations programs in Darfur to protect women from sexual assault.[17]

Persecution of Health Workers

Doctors, nurses and other health professionals continually face persecution around the world for nondiscriminatory treatment of patients, specifically in areas of conflict. PHR advocates for medical neutrality, or the right to treat all patients equally regardless of their political position, race, or religion, and fights for the protection of medical personnel. PHR supports the position that health professionals and health services should not be disturbed in conflict. All civilians should have access to care at all times. PHR has published multiple reports on violations of medical neutrality in El Salvador, Panama, Kuwait, Thailand, India, the former Yugoslavia, and most recently in Bahrain.


Following the violent anti-government protests calling for reform in February and March 2011, PHR began an investigation into attacks on doctors in Bahrain. Doctors had first-hand knowledge of the atrocities committed by government forces on protesters and civilians. In April 2011, PHR published a report detailing attacks on doctors who attempted to provide nondiscriminatory care to protesters. The attacks were systematic and some doctors were taken from their homes in the middle of the night, and dozens were arrested and detained. The Bahraini government also militarized the health system, further limiting access to care to those in need. PHR also documented the beating, abuse, and torture of physicians, the abduction of ambulances by military forces, and the invasion of hospitals. In the recent report Do No Harm: A Call for Bahrain to End Systematic Attacks on Doctors and Patients PHR called for the government of Bahrain to immediately end these attacks and for the US government to lead an international effort to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Violations of Medical Neutrality through the United Nations Human Rights Council.[18]

Iran: Free the Alaei doctors

In 2009 Dr. Arash Alaei and his brother, Dr. Kamiar Alaei, were convicted of working with an enemy government, the United States, and sentenced to six and three years in jail respectively. The Alaei brothers are internationally known AIDS doctors who focused on youth education on transmission and Iran's HIV/AIDS prison program, which passes out syringes and condoms in prisons. The Alaei brothers helped to bring Iran to the forefront of AIDS prevention and treatment. At the time of their arrest they were not told of the charges against them. Later, they were accused of seeking to overthrow the Iranian government. In 2010, Dr. Kamiar Alaei was released from prison after serving two years of his three-year sentence. He is now working for his brother's release. PHR set up a campaign to advocate for Dr. Arash Alaei's release at

National Student Program

PHR launched a student program in 1996 to develop the next generation of human rights champions and cultivate their unique contributions to the movement. PHR hosts a student blog, and has toolkits to get students involved in PHR's work. Student advocacy for PHR includes participating in action alerts, urging elected officials to take action, and educating their local communities on health and human rights issues. Today, 3,700 students from 64 medical and public health school chapters learn human rights and advocacy through an on-line community, Regional Advocacy Institutes, and National Student Conference.[19]

Founders and Famous PHR Associates

External links

  • Physicians for Human Rights
  • Broken Laws, Broken Lives Official site for Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of US Torture and Its Impact (Physicians for Human Rights, June 2008)
  • Iran, Free the Docs
  • PHR Student Blog
  • SourceWatch, "Physicians for Human Rights." Staff, board of directors, advisory committee, funding sources
  • Physicians for Human Rights Accuses CIA of Carrying Out Illegal Human Experimentation - video report by Democracy Now!


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