US Congressman James McGovern closed the PHR Student Conference with an inspirational speech in which he urged students to get involved in the political process and highlighted the critical human rights work he is spearheading on Capitol Hill.
Following are his prepared remarks:
I want to thank you for that very kind introduction. It’s a great honor for me to be here. I cannot emphasize enough how important is the role played by Physicians for Human Rights in my work on international human rights – and how important the role each of you will play today, tomorrow and into the future in shaping more humane, more human rights-based approaches to health care here in the United States and around the world.
I look at this audience and I see the future. And I want you to know one thing: we need you. We need you to be active, engaged, smart and willing to be leaders on the right to health care and on the many human rights issues encompassed in and embraced by health care and health professionals. And when I look at this audience and the program of events and workshops held throughout this day – I also see the past and the road that has led to this day – and to this gathering.
You are following in the footsteps of heroes. Ground breakers. Path makers. Dr. Carola Eisenberg – psychiatrist, one of the founders of PHR, and custodian of the flame in so many ways. Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor, a leading light in health and human rights education, and one of the leading doctors engaged for over two decades in stopping torture and making sure the world understood the health consequences of this heinous act.
Now, it’s your time to take up the torch, to lead the way, in your schools, your professional practice, your health care institutions, in your communities, states, the nation and the world.
I don’t know if any of you have noticed or been following this – but there’s been a bit of a debate recently over health care in the United States. Regrettably, it’s become more a debate over how to reform the health insurance system of the United States rather than a debate over how we can make sure every American in the United States receives quality health care – as a right, not a privilege. Health care is supposed to be a basic human right. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to the debate here in the United States.
So, while I know you’ve probably heard this a dozen times already throughout the day, let me repeat it one more time: Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) clearly enshrines the right to health: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” These UDHR provisions are similarly enshrined in international human rights law by Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
And even though we don’t tend to talk about meeting these basic needs as basic human rights – the right to food, clothing, housing, medical care – as health professionals it is critical you enshrine this in your heart, in your mind, and in how you carry out your professional responsibilities and practice.
What might the debate on health care have looked like if rather than angry Tea party members disrupting town hall meetings throughout the summer we had seen armies of doctors, nurses and other health care workers descending on their Members of Congress demanding that access to quality health care is a basic human right of every individual and family living America?
I believe committed individuals can make a difference. I believe committed individuals joining and organizing together – like Physicians for Human Rights – can change the course of policy, perhaps even history. The indigenous peoples of the Andes call this a “minga” – the coming together for common purpose and action. I think it’s time to “minga” – maybe to “minga-things-up.” Are you ready to “minga”?
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many places around the world. I tend to go to places where the people are poor, vulnerable and often confronting a life of daily violence, war and oppression. They are often hungry, and without schools or doctors. And yet I consider myself lucky to have met them and to know them because they always inspire me with their hope, their dreams and aspirations, their ideas, their resilience, their mercy and compassion, and their determination to give their children a better life than their own. Just as I have dreams for my own children.
And I believe it is my duty – your duty – to stand up for their basic human rights. The right not to be murdered or tortured. And, as an aside, I m horrified that there are Members of Congress and political leaders who still advocate in favor of torture. They are wrong – and we need to say so.
We need to stand up for the right of men, women and children to walk from their homes to their schools and not lose their lives or their limbs to a landmine. We need to stand up for their right to grow enough food or be able to buy enough food so that their children can grow and live up to their full potential. We need to stand up for their right NOT to disappear one day and end up in a mass grave. The right to speak their mind, vote for their leaders, and meet with their neighbors without the fear of death or intimidation. The right to drink clean water and live in an environment free from pollution.
Doctors, nurses and health care workers have a responsibility to these people and to the oath they took as physicians to help and support these people and communities achieve these rights – because every single one of these rights are necessary to their health and well-being. They don’t need you to tell them what they need – or even what they need to do. They need you to stand with them in solidarity for their rights. They need you to be partners and to work with them to achieve these rights and fulfill their aspirations.
And they need you to be their witness and to fight for justice when they have been denied their freedom or lost their lives. To exhume their graves, identify their remains and tell the story of how they died and who did this to them. To heal their wounds, without regard to their views, philosophy or politics. To repair bodies and minds broken by rape, abuse, violence and torture. To stand up for your own ethics should you ever be asked to break your healer’s oath and asked to observe, advise, monitor, study or carry out acts of torture or to violate your medical neutrality in any way. They need you to demand that weapons of war that deliberately target and harm civilians – anti-personnel landmines, cluster munitions, chemical and biological weapons – are banned forever.
And I need you to do this. As a Member of Congress who fights for human rights, I need your expertise; I need your eye-witness reports and testimony; I need you to be actively engaged in the fight to shape our policies abroad and right here at home. I love America. I love my home town. I love Massachusetts and my country. I love the democratic experiment started so long ago and is still a work in process today. I love working to make our nation a more perfect union – and I need you to be engaged in the same work. Because if you aren’t, it’s not that I might fail – it’s that we all might fail our nation in living up to its true potential.
President Obama has pledged to end child hunger in America by 2015. Not reduce it or cut it in half – but end it, eliminate it. What a glorious health and human rights initiative to get involved in. Right here in Massachusetts we’re working to create hunger-free communities, with a special focus on children. And the health care system and health care professionals are a critical component of this campaign.
Just a few weeks ago, working with Project Bread and UMass Memorial Health Care right here in Boston, I participated in the launch of a guidebook on how hospitals can help fight hunger in their communities.
Hunger is a fact of life for more than 554,000 people in Massachusetts. If good food is the first medicine, then we have to take steps to make sure that all patients and their families receive adequate nutrition. It’s the right thing for their health; it’s the right thing for their lives; and it’s an action that upholds their basic human rights.
We need to do this right here in Massachusetts. We need to do it across America. We need to do it in refugee camps and HIV/AIDS clinics and schools and communities around the world. We need to end global hunger and create instead a world with food security.
And you need to teach this to the current and future generations of health care professionals. You need to practice it in your professions so that current and future generations of health care professionals and workers have models to emulate and build on. And I believe you CAN do this.
I want to give a heartfelt thanks to the students of Boston University School of Medicine who helped organize and put together this national conference. If you can do this, then you’re ready to take the next step – and change the country and the world.
Thank you one and all.
Many thanks to Congressman McGovern for his presence at this Town Hall forum and for his dedication to health and human rights world-wide.