Physicians for Human Rights

Becoming a Human Rights Activist

by | Dec 12, 2000

Carla Eisenberg with a patient on a 1987 medical mission to El Salvador.

As a member of a 1983 American Public Health Association delegation to evaluate medical neutrality in El Salvador, I saw mothers and children begging for food and for help in getting back home from detention camps. I saw political prisoners confined under brutal conditions after torture. Although I left my homeland of Argentina as a medical student before the terrible misfortunes of dictatorship, I had been afraid to speak out from a distance lest family and friends be targeted. The El Salvador trip crystallized my commitment to the battle for human rights, and I became a founding member of the Nobel Prize winning Physicians for Human Rights.

My interest in human rights began, you will not be surprised to learn, with my parents. My father was an Argentine proud of the independence of his country, my mother, a Russian immigrant who knew despotism from first-hand experience. Most nights after dinner, my father would read news stories to us and invite us to comment on reports dealing with injustice, and intolerance. Both parents emphasized the importance of education. Although few of the girls in my elementary school went on to high school, there was never any question in our family that I should and I would.

When I enrolled in the medical faculty at the University of Buenos Aires, I was one of a handful of women in a class numbering nearly a thousand. Bizarre as this decision was to some relatives (“Who would ever marry a woman who had seen a naked man!”) my parents never wavered in supporting my right to choose. And that was in a country where women had not yet won the right to vote!

After completing my adult psychiatry training, I won a competitive fellowship to study child psychiatry abroad because there were no child programs in Argentina. Despite all her worries about how safe I would be, my mother helped me pack for North America (adding warm undies for the snow we had never seen in Buenos Aires).

I came to the States to stay a year, but the year became a lifetime. I met and married a wonderful man with whom I had, in short order, two children, then and now the light of my life. Although I had left Argentina before Peron, the letters I have from home and the terrible misfortunes that befell relatives and friends (two of whom had their children killed by the secret police) made clear the meaning of dictatorship. Happily, my sisters and their children succeeded in emigrating to North America. (My parents had already died.)

Although I had been nervous about the American Public Health Association trip to El Salvador because of my concern about personal safety, the experience of Argentina albeit from a distance compelled me to join the delegation. There, in El Salvador, I saw political prisoners confined under brutal conditions after torture. I met courageous physicians who cared for the wounded and the sick despite the risk in caring for patients who were on the “wrong” side.

The need to be an activist became critical when spokesmen for the State Department denied, flat out, what we had seen with our own eyes. The dreadful and dismaying history of the U.S. Army training Latin American military officers in counter-insurgency operations was not officially acknowledged until 15 years later.

When Jonathan Fine, a long time medical activist, invited Jane Schaller, Bob Lawrence, Jack Geiger, John Constable and me to join him in founding Physicians for Human Rights in 1986, I did not hesitate. PHR soon received an urgent request for a delegation to visit Chile because the officers of the Chilean Medical Association had been jailed after the CMA demonstrated to defended the right of Chilean workers to protest inhumane conditions. Bob Lawrence of Cambridge Hospital and I flew to Santiago where we visited the imprisoned doctors (after some difficulty). We went to see a young Chilean student hospitalized with severe burns after military police doused her and her partner with gasoline and set them on fire. He died; she survived, but barely so. John Constable, an MGH plastic surgeon, evaluated her status to determine whether appropriate burn treatment was available in Santiago. Her parents arranged for her evacuation to a hospital in Canada, where, I am happy to report, her rehabilitation was successful.

Our visit led to a crowded press conference in Santiago, where we demanded that the imprisoned Chilean physicians be freed and that the right to free speech be respected. Did we have any effect? The prisoners took comfort from our visit and the political opposition to Pinochet responded enthusiastically to support from abroad. The imprisoned physicians were freed some weeks after our visit, whether coincidentally or because of what we did, there is no way to know.

In 1988, I went to Paraguay on behalf of PHR to assess the psychiatric condition of an army officer who had taken refuge in the Venezuelan Embassy. He was a recently released prisoner who had been tortured during the dictatorship of General Stroessner, then still in power. The documentation I provided gave grounds for the Papal Legate to intervene with the Paraguayan Government to obtain a permit for the Captain to fly to Spain for asylum.

Since then, PHR has expanded its horizons enormously. The United Nations has called on our forensic pathologists to exhume and identify bodies using DNA testing. PHR delegations have visited Palestinians held in Israeli detention camps, victims of apartheid in South Africa, Kurds mistreated in Turkey and Iraq, women repressed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, refugees from the civil wars in Somalia and Rwanda, Albanian victims of Serbian war crimes in Kosovo. In this country, many of us have volunteered to examine some 300 refugees claiming political asylum because of torture and mistreatment. Our court testimony has been crucial in instances when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had refused legitimate claims. PHR was awarded a share in the Nobel Peace Prize for its contribution to securing an international ban on land mines (signed by 139 nations and ratified by 105; every NATO nation except Turkey and the United States is among that number).

I am proud to be an officer and a member of an organization that takes its mission from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; to defend “the inherent dignity and inalienable right of all members of the human family to freedom, justice, and peace in the world to life, liberty, and security of person.”

Fall 2000


Dr. Carola Eisenberg, MD, a Lecturer in Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, was formerly Dean of Student Affairs, first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then at the Harvard Medical School. She is a founding member of Physicians for Human Rights.

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