Celebrating 75 Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Q&A with PHR Executive Director Sam Zarifi

As we mark International Human Rights Day and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we spoke with PHR Executive Director Sam Zarifi. In this Q&A, he reflects on the state of the human rights movement today, and provides a look ahead to how PHR is preparing for the next era of defending health and human rights around the world.

Looking back at the past 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what do you see as some of the biggest successes of the human rights movement?  

The Universal Declaration was a response to the horrors of the Second World War and the First World War, the Holocaust, the various colonization and decolonization movements, the women’s rights campaigns, and of course the ongoing struggle against racism that we had seen in the first half of the previous century. As such, the Declaration was intended as guidelines and a set of restrictions for what governments and humans could do to one another, and in that sense we can say it has been successful.  

This is no less an effort at changing human culture, at disrupting human history, at setting boundaries on how states and people can treat one another based on the very revolutionary concept that all individuals everywhere have and are entitled to the same rights. Everywhere I have worked over the past 30 years around the world, on all continents, I have seen people, no matter their background or wealth or degree of education or awareness, point to those rights and demand those rights. I think that has been an amazing achievement for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

“We think that the arc of the moral universe can bend toward justice, but this is not inevitable. It requires hard work and dedication to support the voices of those who are defending their own human rights.”

Sam Zarifi

What are the main challenges since the UDHR came into being? 

People look at the ongoing atrocities, the horrors, the violations that, unfortunately, are happening in so many different places on the planet and they ask, “Well what has the Universal Declaration ever done for us?” One of the great challenges is to work on improving and strengthening the implementation of the Universal Declaration while perpetuating its usefulness, and while asking the global community to still adhere to those principles that were declared 75 years ago. The violations that we now see are not an indication of the weakness of the Declaration, but rather that we are now seeing the world through the lens of violations and respect, or unfortunately lack of respect, for the rights embodied in that declaration. To me this is not a sign of the weakness of the Declaration, which, after all, is just a declaration. It’s not a binding treaty. It’s not a convention, it doesn’t have direct legal force. It’s a declaration of humanity and its aspirations. 

I would argue that another success of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been the growth of civil society across the world in almost every country. A lot of this has been significantly aided by developments in modern communication technology.  

What has been the role of health care workers in defending human rights and achieving accountability for human rights violations? How have they themselves been subjected to such violations? 

A crucial element that was codified in the Universal Declaration as well as in the Geneva Conventions was the notion that even in the most extreme conditions of warfare or emergencies, human rights must be protected. Health care workers in particular must be protected and health care facilities cannot be targeted. This is a reflection of the very beginnings of what we now call the laws of war – International Humanitarian Law – and it has been one of the foundational norms for human rights. In the past few years, we have seen a serious erosion in terms of respect for that right. That is a matter of real concern for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and it should be of concern to all of us.  

A central aspect of our work has been to protect members of the medical community in many places around the world. When they speak out about human rights or improving care for their patients, they can become targets of political attacks. We have also seen physical attacks on health care personnel and facilities, and a serious erosion of the foundational norm that health care providers must be protected. We have been working tirelessly to identify these attacks, to bring them to the attention of justice mechanisms and to provide what protection we can to our colleagues who are working in these very difficult conditions.  

Today’s headlines are pretty grim: From Gaza to Sudan to Ukraine, it is often easier to see the profound failures of the international human rights movement, than its successes. What gives you hope for the future of human rights? 

This is a moment to be sober about the promise made in the Universal Declaration. I think there are real reasons to question whether we could bring together the same constellation of actors of powerful states as we did 75 years ago, to make that declaration. At the same time, I think it is fair to say that the Declaration has found its way into global culture, into the hearts and minds of people everywhere. That is a huge success, but it is a victory that needs to be defended from challenges every day. 

We think that the arc of the moral universe can bend toward justice, but this is not inevitable. It requires hard work and dedication to support the voices of those who are defending their own human rights. A corollary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that those who violate those rights should be held to account. This is the space that PHR has been working on for the last three decades, making sure that we push for accountability and that we are able to gather evidence to seek accountability, justice, and remediation for violations.  

An important advance in the last 75 years has been the development of mechanisms at the national, regional, and global levels for defending human rights. These instruments include the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the use of universal jurisdiction in several countries around the world are really very new, about 20 or 30 years old. We have seen some successes and part of that success has been people demanding a lot more. They now ask, “Well, why can’t we put the perpetrators immediately on trial? Why can’t we take them to The Hague?” We have to work toward ensuring that expectations are reasonable but hopeful. 

One element of improving these justice mechanisms is ensuring that they have better evidence, better information. A great part of that comes from the kind of forensic and medical analysis and public health lens that physicians and health care professionals can provide. And in that regard, PHR occupies a fairly unique niche in providing that kind of analysis, that kind of evidence toward accountability and the search for justice. 

How is PHR looking ahead to meet the new era of human rights protection? 

Given our resources, we cannot address every situation that demands justice. But we have done quite a bit. And we are working to strengthen our ability to present and gather more evidence, and to use them more effectively in support of human rights, defenders of the people whose rights have been violated, working together with lawyers and prosecutors and academicians around the world. 

After 25 years of working in defense of human rights around the world I have been privileged and very excited to join PHR this year that marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I have seen what PHR can achieve by marshalling evidence, by using the power, frankly the prestige, of the medical community to defend, to promote human rights around the world. 

To take one example, the impact of PHR’s work on issues such as excessive use of force by the police around the world has been amazing to see. We have seen various UN mechanisms take note of the evidence provided by PHR, and respond to it. We have seen real reaction – from governments, for instance, in the United States, where PHR has been working to get rid of the false diagnosis of “excited delirium” – something that police still use to justify using excessive force. PHR has now worked with physicians’ organizations in the United States to ensure that they are clear that this diagnosis is not medically sound. And we are now starting to see state legislatures move to ban the use of this diagnosis by the police. That is real, concrete movement, inspired by the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is just one of many examples of the impact PHR is having every day. 

The medical community and health care professionals play a unique role in defending and providing the basic rights that were embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to life, the right to health and dignity all require functioning health care systems and require policies that are based on science and on medical evidence. That is why at PHR we say that we work at the intersection of law, medicine, and science, to defend human rights and to establish policies that support and promote human rights. The role of the medical community has been really highlighted, especially in the last few years with the pandemic and the ongoing effects of conflict, war, and climate change. We need to harness the expertise and evidence that can be provided by the medical community to respond to these huge challenges. 

On this Human Rights Day celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I hope that you will consider supporting the work of Physicians for Human Rights. 

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