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PHR Welcomes New Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Who Will Galvanize Health Professionals to Advance Human Rights

Global human rights leader Saman Zia-Zarifi, JD selected as PHR’s new executive director; Humanitarian expert Gareth Crawford, MPA to serve as COO and director of development

At a time when human rights are under assault around the globe, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today welcomes two visionary leaders who will mobilize the medical community to defend rights and advance justice. 

International human rights lawyer Saman (“Sam”) Zia-Zarifi, JD, LLM brings three decades of trailblazing legal, programmatic, and advocacy excellence to PHR. Zarifi joins PHR as executive director after serving as the secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a leading INGO that defends the rule of law worldwide, where he oversaw all aspects of ICJ’s work across 50 countries and 100+ staff. He previously led Amnesty International’s Asia & Pacific program after leading several teams at Human Rights Watch, where he served as Washington advocate and deputy director of the Asia program. An Iranian-American lawyer, Zarifi is a renowned expert on human rights law, international accountability, justice mechanisms, and the human rights dimensions of global health emergencies, such as COVID-19. 

Gareth Crawford, MPA, PHR’s new COO and director of development, is a veteran leader in the global humanitarian and health rights field. He joins PHR after leading the Carey Institute for Global Good as president and CEO, and he continues to serve as vice president of the board of Doctors of the World. Crawford has led vast portfolios for top humanitarian and health organizations, including as head of disaster operations – Asia region for Plan International; country director for Kenya, Somalia, and Uganda for BBC Media Action; country director in Kenya and emergency program manager in Somalia for Save the Children U.K.; and emergency program manager for Médecins San Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Pakistan. A native of Northern Ireland, he has spent his career successfully leading large and complex programs on children’s rights, humanitarian operations, capacity development, and refugees and displaced populations.  

“Today Physicians for Human Rights is thrilled to welcome two world-renowned experts to lead the organization and propel PHR’s vital research and advocacy,” said Gerson H. Smoger, JD, PhD, chair of PHR’s Board of Directors. “For more than 35 years, PHR has worked at the intersection of medicine, science, and law to secure and advance human rights for all. I could not imagine anyone more superbly suited than Sam Zarifi and Gareth Crawford to drive PHR’s work mobilizing health professionals to act for justice, advancing accountability, and documenting human rights abuses. They bring decades of expertise from the highest levels of the human rights and humanitarian fields, including deep experience building and growing programs from New York to Nairobi, from Switzerland to Southeast Asia.”  

“With rights under attack around the globe, public health under threat, and impunity a prevailing norm, there is no better time for PHR to step into the fray,” said Saman Zarifi, the new PHR executive director. “PHR harnesses the skills, tools, and voices of the medical profession to rigorously document abuses and fight impunity. The global fight for human rights and accountability – and the demand for PHR’s evidence, action, and vision – is more urgent than ever. From Ukraine to Syria to Myanmar, heinous atrocities against civilians and health workers demand both action and solidarity from medical professionals. In the United States, we’ve seen one of the most drastic rollbacks of human rights in generations with the overturn of Roe v. Wade, as well as the internationally recognized right to seek asylum under attack. Sexual violence in conflict zones remains an overlooked global catastrophe, from the DRC to the frontlines of the war in Ukraine.” 

“Across all these daunting conflicts and crises, I’m joining PHR because this storied organization is uniquely equipped to rise to the moment and advance human rights and justice for all. From its leading role in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, for which it shared the Nobel Peace Prize, to its pioneering anti-torture work, to its landmark reports and investigations, to the 2,200+ professional-strong PHR Asylum Network, I have long admired PHR’s innovation and impact. I look forward to catalyzing and supporting PHR as it moves into a new generation of approaches, partnerships, and results,” said Zarifi. 

Zarifi will steer PHR’s overall work and will be PHR’s lead representative to policy, practitioner, donor, and constituent communities. As COO and director of development, Crawford will oversee PHR’s finance, human resources, development, and operations. 

Throughout Gareth Crawford’s career in the humanitarian and children’s rights fields, he has witnessed the vital role that health workers play in the human rights movement. 

“In all the humanitarian contexts I have worked in around the globe, there have always been courageous and selfless health care workers on the front lines,” said Crawford. “Health professionals are not only vital to provide emergency assistance at the point of need, but they are ideally skilled to identify, diagnose, and document evidence of abuses. Medical professionals are often the eyes and the ears for human rights during conflicts and humanitarian emergencies. When they speak out and seek justice, change is possible. I joined PHR because this organization is singularly placed to train, mobilize, and defend health workers in the pursuit of human rights for all.” 

“I deeply appreciate PHR’s staff, board, network, and donors for their support and commitment to our work, which has enabled us to hire such extraordinary new leaders for PHR,” said Smoger, PHR board chair. “Sam Zarifi and Gareth Crawford enter an organization that has tremendous assets in the form of its devoted staff, board, advisors, advisory council members, and global network of volunteers, who together lead the groundbreaking research, advocacy, and capacity-strengthening. I truly believe that Sam Zia-Zarifi and Gareth Crawford will help take this world-changing organization to new heights and, more importantly, advance the global movement for human rights, health, and dignity.”

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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