Hundreds meet to talk human rights

Monday, February 2, 2009

Students and health professionals from around the country convened in Andrews Hall this weekend to discuss topics including genocide in Darfur, torture at Guantanamo Bay and how best to advocate for human rights.

About 350 people, from as far away as Stanford University and as nearby as Providence College, took part in the annual student conference of the organization Physicians for Human Rights, which was highlighted by a keynote address from Stephen Lewis, former U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and a town hall with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Following the Saturday morning opening keynote by Lewis, the co-director of AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization, students attended a panel on “realizing the right to health,” then broke into workshop sessions in Smith-Buonanno Hall and the BioMedical Center that focused on advocacy training and human rights issues in health care and in war.

In a workshop called “Accountability for Perpetrators of US Torture,” Nathaniel Raymond, the director of Physicians for Human Rights’ “Campaign against Torture,” emphasized the part of the physician’s oath that swears to “do no harm.” Raymond and John Bradshaw, the organization’s chief policy officer, outlined potential methods to hold government officials responsible for detainee abuse at sites like the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bradshaw pointed out that, a year ago, finding “accountability” for abuses at Guantanamo Bay was an abstract hope for the future. But, he said, if there are going to be attempts to hold government officials to account, they must be undertaken in the next year or not at all. The issue is “completely within the hands” of people who feel strongly about its outcome, he said.

Attendees had the opportunity to present research on a human rights issue at the student expo held in Andrews. Harb Harb, a student at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine, presented his research on health care accessibility in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a project for which he surveyed 750 Palestinian refugees.

Although “you hear about health care being a right,” Harb said, the situation on the ground many places in the world often differs from that ideal.

Whitehouse capped the Saturday evening town hall meeting by again discussing accountability for detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay. “You don’t expiate a wrong if you don’t confess to it,” he said.

Bradshaw called Whitehouse – a first-term senator from Rhode Island – one of Physicians for Human Rights’ “great allies” and urged the audience members to support efforts to hold government officials responsible.

“We have to re-establish the fact that no one is above the law,” he said.

Marta Galecki, a student at Weill Medical College at Cornell, said she came to meet students who shared her interest in human rights issues. She attended workshops where she said she learned how to target “significant players” who can help make a large-scale difference, and an “eye-opening” workshop on the collapse of the health care system in Zimbabwe, she said.

Medical students and physicians, however, were not the only attendees. Chloe LeMarchand ’09, a human biology concentrator interested in global health, said she came to the conference to learn about a range of current human rights issues around the world. “It’s really the stories that touch you,” she said.

Talia Firestein ’09, another undergraduate who attended the conference, said she and LeMarchand learned about “values clarification,” when they evaluated themselves to see where they would stand if they had to make hard decisions. She gave the example of a health care worker in a developing country charged with caring for an entire community but equipped with only a limited amount of a hypothetical HIV vaccine. Would she choose to vaccinate the men – the “breadwinners” – or the women to best prevent spreading the disease to children?

Overall, “it was cool to interact and talk with these people you would never dream of meeting,” LeMarchand said.

Portia Thurmond MD’11, the co-president of the Brown chapter of Physicians for Human Rights, said the University’s “deep history of advocacy” made it a great site for the conference. She said the national organizers of PHR provided the programming, while the Brown chapter worked out the logistics with the help of many volunteers.

Though students had to register for the event, Thurmond said she was “flooded with e-mails” after registration had closed from students who were still interested in attending. “We’ve just been letting people in anyway,” she said.

Thurmond said one of the conference’s crucial messages was that “you still have the power to do something.”

“In medical school, it’s easy to think in a very narrow way,” she said.

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