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PHR Salutes and Bids Farewell to President Leonard Rubenstein

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights pays tribute and bids farewell to Leonard Rubenstein, who served as our executive director from 1996 through 2007; and then president of PHR in 2007 when Frank Donaghue became our chief executive officer.

"Len's leadership extended beyond our organization to the human rights field as a whole, and we express our gratitude for the vision, dedication and level of accomplishment that he brought to PHR and shared with many others," said Donaghue. "We wish him well at his new position at the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health."

Len came to PHR just before its tenth anniversary. The organization had already earned a reputation in the field through our international forensic program, our commitment to health professionals persecuted for their engagement in human rights activities and our role in providing medical documentation and leadership that helped launch the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Even as he continued that tradition, Len led PHR in new directions that have shaped our role today.

"Len guided board, staff and constituents to become one of the first major U.S. human rights organizations to embrace economic, social and cultural rights as an organizational priority," said Deputy Director Susannah Sirkin. "As a result, PHR became a pioneer in employing the right to health as a fulcrum in the struggle against HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality, and the health workforce crisis in the developing world."

Len also continued to bring human rights home for PHR, implementing strategies grounded in human rights to challenge disparities in quality of American health care based on race and ethnicity and galvanizing medical expertise to oppose the juvenile death penalty, which has now come to an end in the United States.

Since the attacks of 9/11, Len is perhaps best known for his role in the struggle to end torture by the United States and to reverse policies that led health professionals to become complicit in it. He recognized well before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke that U.S policy on treatment of detainees was counter to our values and our laws, and doggedly pursued the truth about the U.S interrogation policy and practice. Under Len's leadership PHR identified psychological forms of torture as a central feature of U.S. interrogation and highlighted the central role of health professionals as enablers of that regime.Len oversaw a series of cutting-edge investigations on torture by the U.S. and created and led a relentless campaign to educate the nation about the extent of the abuses and their impact on detainees, on the law, and on our own national institutions, and the need to end them. He both rallied our human rights colleagues and gained the respect of policy-makers who could make the changes needed.

Len has been an innovator in human rights documentation and advocacy, leading PHR to become ever more effective in its work. He understood the limits of traditional methods of human rights investigation – taking testimony from witnesses – to document violations that take place on a massive scale. He oversaw seminal population-based surveys in a half dozen countries on matters ranging from sexual assault to denial of access to health care to war crimes. He strengthened PHR's ability to use the results of its findings by opening what became a highly respected advocacy office in Washington and devoting resources to campaigns of health professionals. And he initiated what has become a signature PHR program to train and inspire students of medicine and public health to embrace human rights as part of their professional lives. As Len was doing all this, he grew the organization, expanded its funding base and mentored, encouraged, and supported staff to use their own talents to achieve a measure of justice in the world.

Len always felt he had to do more than provide direction to the organization; he believed in being fully engaged in the work. He traveled to see circumstances on the ground, speak with people subjected to horrific wrongs, report what he found and collaborate with colleagues who put their own well-being on the line for human rights. His publications from South Africa, Chechnya, Zimbabwe, Israel and Occupied Territories, Kosovo and at home in the U.S. demonstrated through his own example PHR's commitment to rigor, quality, and reporting that could galvanize action on human rights.

Len's legacy includes gathering representatives from around the globe to develop what have become key ethical and human rights standards to protect health professionals from demands by the state to use their professional skills to violate the human rights of the people with whom they work.

Of course this struggle is ongoing, and PHR looks forward to continuing collaboration with Len and with our partners at Johns Hopkins as the movement for health and human rights grows and flourishes. The PHR community will continue to seek Len's wise counsel on the human rights challenges we face.

Related link: Len Rubenstein’s address on the occasion of PHR’s 20th anniversary (PDF)

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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