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5 Questions for...Donna McKay, Executive Director, Physicians for Human Rights

May 12, 2017

Donna McKay is executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization dedicated to using science and medicine to prevent and investigate human rights abuses around the world — with a focus on torture, mass atrocities, rape in war, and the persecution of health workers. A joint recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, PHR has unearthed forensic evidence from mass graves that helped convict former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity; mapped attacks on healthcare workers in Syria; and led a campaign against the complicity of health professionals in the United States' post-9/11 torture program.

PND asked McKay about PHR's work, in the U.S. and elsewhere, to end human rights abuses as well as the role of physicians and science, medicine, and technology in advancing those efforts.

Donna_mckayPhilanthropy News Digest: Since you joined PHR as executive director in 2012, conflict and humanitarian crises have dominated the headlines — including the rise of Boko Haram and ISIS, violence against civilians in Burma, and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Ukraine. Is conflict, and its attendant human rights abuses, on the rise globally?

Donna McKay: What's striking to me is how many of these crises actually began as human rights crises. In Burma, what started as the marginalizing of a minority group has ballooned into a humanitarian disaster. In Syria, after President Bashar al-Assad mercilessly suppressed an anti-government uprising, those who criticized his government were arrested, tortured, disappeared, and murdered — resulting in a massive refugee crisis. In South Sudan, fighting and forced displacement have caused the world's youngest nation to basically unravel. The list goes on. And each time, the international community has stood by while those human rights violations piled up and became some of the most vexing conflicts facing our generation. If you want to talk about conflict prevention, you have to talk about ending human rights violations and snuffing out larger crises before they begin.

What's heartening, though, is that while crises are on the rise, so too is the notion of human rights more generally. In a number of our trainings, health professionals from other parts of the world have told me that a generation ago, they didn't even have the language of human rights. Indeed, conflict is on the rise, but so is community activism. People are pouring into the streets, demanding their rights. I will never forget the joy I saw on the face of a friend and fellow activist from Egypt describing the first time he voted in an election. There's a thirst out there. And once people are exposed to human rights, you can't put the genie back in the bottle. They're just not going to give up.

PND: You have said that physicians in conflict zones bear witness to atrocities, that they believe in the power of evidence, and that medicine and science are about truth. PHR has documented nearly 800 attacks on medical workers and more than 450 attacks on medical facilities in Syria since 2011. Why are medical workers and facilities targeted in civil wars? And what should the international community be doing that it is not doing to better protect them?

DM: The numbers take your breath away. Doctors not only save lives — they are often on the front lines of human rights violations. Medical professionals adhere to some of the most robust ethical standards and treat those on all sides of a conflict, regardless of their identity, affiliations, or beliefs. They are also poised to speak credibly about the atrocities they see first-hand. Until fairly recently, the world had agreed that health professionals in conflict must be shielded. But we've allowed those longstanding norms to crumble. In Syria, we feared that attacks on hospitals and doctors would become the new normal — and sadly, they have. The conflict has been raging for over six years, and it's really only in the past year that the world has woken up to these atrocities. I think our work has played a part in that awakening.

Now that the awareness is growing, the international community must demand adherence to international law and must not let politics interfere with century-old norms that protect health professionals. At this point, no one can turn a blind eye and say this isn't happening. And yet so far, there has been no justice, no accountability. That must change. And that's why we at PHR are meticulously documenting these crimes. We're hopeful that our work can contribute to future prosecutions for attacks against medical personnel and facilities. It may seem impossible right now — but that's what naysayers said when we were gathering international support for a global landmine ban, an effort that led to the international landmine treaty and recognition by the Nobel Committee. We wouldn't do this work if we didn't have hope.

PND: The Open Society Foundations recently awarded PHR an $8 million challenge grant in support of your efforts to expand your network of health professional and human rights advocates and upgrade your technology. What new technologies is PHR developing or adopting to help clinicians more effectively collect, document, and preserve forensic medical evidence of human rights abuses?

DM: Since 2011, PHR has been using a multi-sectoral approach by training medical, law enforcement, and legal experts to fight the scourge of sexual violence in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the DRC in particular, there are thousands of rape cases annually, yet few of these are properly prosecuted, often due to lack of evidence. So we've also taken a high-tech/low-tech approach. On the high-tech front, we've developed an award-winning mobile app called Medicapt, which allows our network members to document, securely store, and safely transmit forensic evidence in sexual violence cases. But we've also worked with our partners to develop a standardized forensic medical intake form, a kind of routine checklist that last year the Congolese government adopted and agreed to implement nationwide. It sounds a bit bureaucratic, but it's revolutionary in that it provides concrete solutions that radically change how systems can serve survivors.

And we don't think of MediCapt as an end in itself. In order to develop the app, we had to bring together a multidisciplinary group of lawyers and doctors and police officers and prosecutors, all of which has enabled us to strengthen our network. I don't know of another organization that forges these alliances to combat sexual violence. PHR has never been afraid to reinvent and innovate, but we always do so collaboratively. In East and Central Africa, for example, we're all working toward the same goal — ensuring that strong evidence makes its way through the system and ultimately prevents impunity.

PND: Before joining PHR, you spent a decade at the American Civil Liberties Union helping to shape its response to the erosion of civil liberties after 9/11. How did that work influence your perspective on the role of physicians in investigating and preventing human rights abuses?

DM: I was at the ACLU in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent assault on civil liberties in the United States. Helping the ACLU respond to that crisis and then grow strategically was a powerful experience and one that I wanted to take to PHR because I see the incredible power that can happen when change agents are deployed. At the ACLU, lawyers were those change agents, and at PHR, it's health professionals who can influence the world. You see that in PHR's partners — in Turkey, in Uzbekistan, in Tunisia — who've caught that bug, who now know what it's like to deliver rights and fight for justice on behalf of ordinary people. PHR functions best when it acts as a vehicle, a network to support human rights activists who are also health professionals.

When I came to PHR more than five years ago, I saw the organization as this beautiful gem sitting on a shelf, a bit unknown but with enormous potential for impact. I wanted to take that gem off the shelf, shine it up, and make sure that health professionals everywhere know that we are here for them, upholding their ethics and providing a rubric under which they can become some of the world's most powerful advocates. And I think we're moving in the right direction.

PND: PHR was one of the organizations that in September 2015 called on the Obama administration to allow more refugees from the conflict in Syria into the United States. What do you make of the Trump administration's policy vis-à-vis Syrian refugees? And do you have any hope that the administration's policy may become more responsive to the plight of Syrian refugees over time?

DM: I'd push back a little and ask: What policy? I'm hard-pressed to identify anything this administration is doing that qualifies as a coherent policy. The recent executive orders and the fear-mongering whipped up against immigrants and asylum seekers and refugees from war zones are just plain inhumane. It's short-sighted. It's immoral. And it's painful. There's no doubt that the U.S. shutting its doors on those seeking refuge will do more harm than good.

At PHR, every day we're watching the crises that are feeding refugee flows and meticulously documenting the human rights abuses that are leading so many Syrians to flee. We're providing that evidence so no government — including the U.S. — can say it doesn't know what's happening in Syria. As far as responsiveness goes, I'm concerned that there are no signs the administration is going to change its approach to refugees. In fact, through his fixation on building a wall and cracking down on asylum seekers — whom we support through our network of clinicians who evaluate victims of torture and ill treatment — President Trump has shown a deep antipathy toward those who still see the U.S. as a safe haven. He talks a lot about making America great again. But what's great about turning his back on those fleeing horrors like we've seen in Syria or fleeing sexual violence in Central America?

The other challenge we face is that human rights activists and health professionals are under threat — not just in Syria but in Yemen, in South Sudan, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Turkey. They're being persecuted, arrested, and even killed for doing their jobs and telling the truth about human rights violations they're witnessing. NGOs as well as foundations and governments have to commit to protecting these activists and professionals. And ordinary Americans can help by showing their solidarity with those efforts. There's so much fear that Americans will lose interest — that, under the weight of so many crises and so many mixed messages, they will relent and say, "It's just too big a problem for one person to make a difference." Our call to Americans and advocates of humanity and human rights everywhere is simple: Don't give up. And don't underestimate the power of solidarity. We have to show support for one another, for fellow activists, and for the next generation of young advocates who are trying to find their way toward a sustainable model for promoting human rights around the world.

— Kyoko Uchida

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