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Vol 10 No 2 Summer 1999
  • 1. The General Comment on Article 12

    The decision for which PHR–UK had hoped, that the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) would choose to go ahead with a General Comment on Article 12 of the International Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights, was made in May.

    Last year PHR-UK took the opportunity of being involved in presenting evidence to the CESCR (on access to healthcare for Palestinians) to encourage members to consider issuing a General Comment dealing with the so called ‘Right to Health’, that would have the effect of promoting better understanding and hence better implementation by state signatories, who are required to make Periodic Reports at five year intervals [see Newsletter 10, Spring 1999 for an account of this]

    In May CESCR embarked upon a programme that will end with a General Comment – one important anticipated advance is the development, in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, of a robust system of benchmarks and indicators that will enhance the CESCR’s effectiveness by transforming its capacity to reliably assess a state’s health care system.

    To promote the productiveness of the CESCR’s Day of Discussion, from which the General Comment will spring, Article 12 will form the most substantive issue of the annual conference of the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organisations, hosted in November by PHR-UK. This ‘dry run’ debate by invited international experts before the Special Rapporteur, who although not medically trained has been appointed by the CESCR to coordinate the programme, will help him plan his approach – concluding with the General Comment sometime in the year 2000.


  • 2. A Physiologist Looks at the Death Penalty, by Harold Hillman

    In 1956, while I was a neurosurgical houseman, a general practitioner - to whom I was going to become an assistant - had a series of heart attacks, and this started my interest in resuscitation. I subsequently became the senior physiologist at the University of Surrey, and the first question I asked was ‘What is the nature of dying?’. There had been many publications on the post mortem changes after dying, and the psychology of bereavement; there seemed to be no literature on the process of dying.

    I embarked upon a series of observations ( but no examinations) of patients dying in a local geriatric hospital. At the same time, in my laboratory, I observed and examined the process of dying of animals being killed for biochemical, physiological and pathological experiments. I realised that dislocation of the neck, carbon monoxide poisoning, air embolus, electrical stunning, and guillotining, were all painful and unsightly slaughtering procedures in animals. Unfortunately analogous procedures were used in execution of human beings.

    Those who execute prisoners by electric chair believe either that the prisoners have been convicted of such horrifying crimes that it does not matter if he or she suffers during the execution, or that the current causes the prisoner to become unconscious instantaneously - so they feel nothing. The latter view can be shown to be wrong. The large electric current causes severe pain in the conscious person, lasting until they become unconscious due to pain or shock.

    In 1991, I was asked to prepare an affidavit for an appeal of Mr Frank Sawyer who was on death row in New Orleans. He was of very low intelligence. I could not say whether the electric chair was a ‘cruel or unusual’ punishment in terms of American law, but I could adduce evidence that it was painful and humiliating. The appeal was lost but the Board of Corrections of Louisiana abandoned the electric chair in the State soon afterwards; I was told this was as in response to my affidavit. Indiana also discarded its electric chair for the same reason. I also appeared at a court in Montgomery, Georgia, to give evidence about the cruelty of the electric chair as a method of execution. My affidavit is now in the public domain, and I believe that it has been used in about 20 American state courts. At present, only six states have the electric chair as the only method of execution, although they are the states, such as Alabama and Texas, where capital punishment is most widely used. Most states execute by lethal injection.

    Most human rights workers would like to abolish the death penalty completely. The Chinese execute more people than the rest of the world put together. In the United States, a large, powerful and vociferous majority wants to continue it, so that it seems unlikely that it will be abolished by any legal procedure.

    For historical reasons the British Privy Council is still the final court of appeal for the countries of the West Indies. Violent crime is fairly widespread in, for example, Jamaica and Trinidad. Hanging is the traditional method of execution, as it was in Britain until 1961. Mr Saul Lehfreund of the London legal firm of Simons, Muirhead and Burton, is responsible for 70 prisoners on death row in the West Indies and Honduras. He asked me to prepare a new affidavit abut the pain and humiliation of hanging , to which 6 prisoners in Jamaica, Trinidad and Grenada had been sentenced. On a technical point, the Privy Council ruled that the executions could go ahead since the Constitutions of the new countries specifically retained the execution methods of the colonial governments. Ten people were rapidly hung over the last weekend in May 1999.

    The defending lawyers are hopeful that the High Court in Belize will address, substantively, the cruelty and humiliation of hanging. Of course they would like to see the sentences commuted, but it is possible that the condemned prisoners will be executed by lethal intravenous injection, rather than by hanging. However Honduras is an independent country in which the Privy Council is not the highest Court of Appeal. Its constitution is more flexible and is being developed continuously. A challenge has gone forward to the hanging of 6 prisoners there

    Harold Hillman is honorary secretary of PHR-UK, a member of the World Medical Association and a steering committee member of AI-UK

    Editors note:

    When in New York for the UN Human Rights Committee hearings last April, Bernie Hamilton raised the death penalty issue with some of the new members of the Committee. The Committee's decisions demonstrate a split on whether or not the death penalty is a cruel or inhuman punishment, and the views of the new members are crucial.

    The USA's nomination to the Committee is Professor Lou Henkin, who is believed to have advised parties who have recently asked the US Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the State of Nevada's current approach to the death penalty and its compatibility with US human rights treaty obligations.


  • 3. PHR-UK’s six for six project

    Soon, one of the only two medically qualified members of the 6 UN treaty based committees, Dr Bent Sorenson, is due to retire. PHR-UK considers that doctors significantly enhance the quality and skills of these committees’ performance. We also believe that there should be a health professional on the staff of the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who could provide a unique insight on the many reports that reach that office. PHR-UK plans to share these views as widely as possible.

    In early June the six for six campaign began with three identical letters sent to Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Professor Peter Burns, Chair, of the UN Committee against Torture and Mr. Niels Helveg Petersen, Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Kingdom of Denmark.

    Dear ...

    I write to say how extremely sorry I was to learn of last week’s announcement that Dr. Bent Sorensen will be leaving the Committee against Torture in the not too distant future.

    As is well known, Dr. Sorensen is a distinguished burns specialist, who has become an international expert on the treatment and prevention of torture. He has worked with the RCT and IRCT, and served as Vice Chair of both the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the Committee against Torture. His reputation in this area is so high that he was elected for maximum terms on both Committees.

    As you are aware, Dr. Sorensen is the only health professional on the Committee, and it is our belief that the Committee on the Rights of the Child is the only other Committee that contains a health professional among the 97 members of the six core human rights treaty monitoring committees.

    PHR-UK is of the view that Dr. Sorensen’s contribution demonstrates the importance of making medical experience and knowledge available to treaty monitoring committees. We would like to see the presence of doctors on the treaty monitoring committees increased rather than decreased. Whilst we recognise that this cannot be guaranteed under the terms of the existing treaties, we believe that it could become a tradition.

    PHR-UK believes that medical expertise should be available to each of the six treaty monitoring committees and to the thematic mechanisms. We would like to see the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have such an expert among its permanent staff to provide this expertise.

    Until such provision is made however, we seek your assurance that every possible consideration will be given to appointing another physician to the Committee against Torture when the time comes for Dr. Sorensen to step down.

    yours sincerely


  • 4. The Campaign to End Genocide

    In May 1999 PHR-UK became a founder member of the Campaign to End Genocide – at a special meeting held at the Hague Appeal for Peace. The campaign is an international coalition dedicated to creating the international institutions and the political will to end genocide forever. Bernie Hamilton described how Raphael Lemkin, who lost 72 of 74 family members in the holocaust, was the driving force behind the drafting and adoption of the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide life, and Peter Hall described the lessons of the Rwandan genocide.

    PHR-UK’s experiences documenting the background to contemporary conflicts involving Armenians and Israelis, as well as witnessing the Rwandan genocide, has inevitably left the organisation with a perspective that generates a longing to prevent further genocides

    The Campaign to End Genocide has six goals:

    1. The early and effective functioning of the International Criminal Court.

    2. The creation of an effective early-warning system to alert the world and especially the U.N. Security Council to potential ethnic conflict and genocide.

    3. The reform of the veto in the U.N. Security Council and/or action by the General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace Resolution when Security Council action is blocked by the veto.

    4. The establishment of a powerful United Nations rapid response force in accordance with Articles 43-48 of the U.N. Charter.

    5. The full payment of U.N. assessments and reliable funding for U.N.peacekeeping.

    6. The provision of public information on the nature of genocide and its prevention.

    In the short time since its inception the CEG has had an impact. Firstly, in the US the Delahunt Amendment to H.R. 2415, publicly supported by a letter from the Coalition (ref Congressional Record, July 19, 1999 American Embassy Security Act of 1999), requiring the US State Department to include evidence of acts that may constitute genocide in its Annual Report on Human Rights, was passed by the House of Representatives.

    The State Department has drafted human rights reports for two decades. These reports have become an authoritative resource for documenting and highlighting abuses. They are used in fashioning America's relationships with foreign governments and multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

    "Too often in history, people have said they 'simply didn't know' about holocausts as they were happening," Delahunt said. "The object of this amendment is to open our collective eyes so wide that no one can credibly claim they were unaware of a Killing Field."

    Secondly, just before the UN force entered East Timor, the CEG issued a comprehensive discussion paper analysing the legal options, and ultimately recommending the creation of an International Criminal Tribunal for East Timor. The paper was presented to the US State Department, and via PHR-UK to the UK Foreign Office and the French government. Within two days of receiving the paper the British Foreign Secretary indicated his support for an East Timor Court on BBC Worldservice


  • 5. PHR–UK report launched at the Houses of Parliament

    Physicians for Human Rights-UK launched the report "A False Dawn: Palestinian Health and Human Rights Under Siege in the Peace Process" at the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday, 6 July 1999. The meeting, which was hosted by Dr. Jenny Tonge, the Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond, comprised two presentations. Dr Christina Pourgourides described the findings of the investigation and was followed by Fiona McKay, a human rights lawyer, who placed the findings within the context of international law and recent developments in the region.

    When, in 1994, the newly established Palestinian Ministry of Health assumed responsibility for health services in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as part of the Oslo Accords, Palestinians began to manage their own health system for the first time. 3 years later, a team of health professionals from Physicians for Human Rights-UK (PHR-UK) and the Dutch Johannes Wier Foundation travelled to the region at the invitation of their sister organisations, PHR-Israel and PHR-Palestine. The objective was to examine access to health care for the Palestinian population.

    Despite the hopes of peace arising from the peace process, Palestinians continue to suffer and die because they cannot get proper access to health care. This hardship affects every Palestinian from those living in the newly autonomous areas to those in the territories occupied by Israel including East Jerusalem. A False Dawn highlights the human rights issues at stake and makes practical recommendations. It concludes that medical interventions are not enough: a lasting remedy lies in the resurrection of the stalled peace process and social justicefor the Palestinian people.

    In November 1999, PHR-UK testified before the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva on this issue. The Committee’s concluding obser--vations reflected PHR–UK’s concerns, as reported in Newsletter Volume 10 of Spring 1999.

    Copies of PHR-UK’s report "A False Dawn: Palestinian Health and Human Rights Under Siege in the Peace Process" are available to members for 5 pounds, including postage, from Dr Peter Hall - cheques made payable to Physicians for Human Rights–UK.



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