Health and Human Rights:

The Participation of Doctors in Human Rights Abuses

Many of our most important human rights documents are the products of the world's horror at the carnage of World War II. There are very broad and powerful announcements of human rights, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. But there are also more specific statements of aspirations for all the world's inhabitants. 1996 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the commencement of the trial of Nazi physicians at Nuremburg, a trial that has been variously designated as the Doctors' Trial. The two-year (1946 - 47) trial of the Nazi doctors documented the most extreme examples of physician participation in human rights abuses, criminal activities, and murder.

Anniversaries provide us with an opportunity to reflect upon the past, but they are also enable us to renew our efforts to plan for the future. In the years since Nuremburg, there have been several important documents in medical ethics and international human rights law that have built upon this foundation, in particular the Declaration of Geneva (1948), the Declaration of Helsinki (1964) and the Declaration of Tokyo (1975), all developed by the World Medical Association (WMA). Taken together, these documents define the broad ethical and legal limits of physicians interaction with other human beings.

Despite the starkness of historical example and the richness of international standards, there are still physicians throughout the world who continue to comply with governments in supporting the use of torture or other inhumane punishment as a means of exercising state control, repression or terror. Yet, there are many physicians who refused to comply with orders that violate recognized tenets of medical ethics and international law.

A prominent example of this non-compliance happened in Rangoon, Burma in March, 1988. The peaceful students protest in Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) was brutally gunned down by the police force (Lone Htein troupe). One of the students, Ko Phone Maw, was shot dead and his body was brought to Rangoon General Hospital for a post mortem examination. (During that time, it was a normal procedure. Anyone dying from other than natural cause had to be brought to the hospital for a post mortem). However, this case was special for the forensic pathologist because the dead body was followed by an order, from the Minister of Health, instructing the doctors not to give the true post mortem report. But, we did not comply with that order though at that time we didn't know any thing about human rights and all those laws. We just practiced the Hippocratic Oath without even realizing that we had, in fact, witnessed the physical and psychological harm that human rights violations cause to individuals and communities.

Since 1988, people of Burma started to learn about basic human rights, and have understood that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the common standard of achievement for all people, all nations. Violations of human rights have impacts on physical, mental and social well being, which is the main concern for health professionals. Thus, health and human rights are closely related. Promotion and protection of health and human rights are inextricably linked; and the interactions between the two fields are increasingly recognized. Our main goal is to provide medical assistance and to promote human dignity. It is time we should work together to develop, support, and enforce the standards of medical ethics and human rights in Burma.

Reference 1. Annas G. Medicine and Human Rights. Health and Human Rights journal .Vol 2 No1

Dr Khin Saw Win (Alice)

This commentary is based on a posting Dr. Khin Saw Win made in the soc.culture.burma newsgroup and the FreeBurma Yahoo! Group on 2000-12-17. The posting has been edited for inclusion on the Burma Watch International Web site.

Date last changed: 2007 September 25

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