An Interview with Frank Donaghue

In Interviews on January 14, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Alexa Stern, Interviewer

Frank Donaghue has served as Chief Executive Officer of Physicians for Human Rights since 2007. With more than three decades of experience in the nonprofit sector, Donaghue has a distinguished track record in humanitarian service, fundraising and management. Under Donaghue’s leadership, PHR has continued to increase its impact on issues of torture, asylum, conflict, global health, and forensics, and its student program continues to thrive.

HCGHR: Over the past decades, numerous global health organizations have developed. What is your vision of the collaboration and cooperation between Physicians for Human Rights and these other organizations?

Donaghue: First of all, I think there’s great collaboration. For example, we did a report on human torture with Human Rights Watch, and so we’re part of a broad group of human rights organizations that meet regularly. Whenever there’s a human rights issues we… talk about what position all of us would take in a kind of one voice way. For example, when Obama came into the administration, we sent together a document outlining basically what we think his priorities should be for human rights. So we really do work closely together. Sometimes, however, organizations will take a position that another human rights organization doesn’t. We were the first organization to come out and call what is happening in Darfur “genocide,” and other organizations weren’t ready and still haven’t basically said that. So there’s times we agree, and times we disagree, but I think there’s a lot of collaboration. I meet with my colleagues at Amnesty [International], Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch (the mainstream human rights organizations) a lot. For example, in the campaign against torture, I think Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First each brought their own unique skills, particularly [for] the legal issues of torture. We brought the health issues to the table and together they’re the kinds of things that raise the bar and the visibility. So without the legal ramifications and the health documentation, you don’t move the bar as far as you can together.

HCGHR: There has been a lot of talk about the “brain drain,” in which physicians and nurses from developing countries leave for jobs in more prosperous nations. This issue has come up in U.S. national news, as Congress considers a bill that would bring in more foreign health practitioners to augment the domestic healthcare workforce. What is your opinion on this legislation, and how do you think the problem of the “brain drain” can be solved?

Donaghue: We’ve written a couple of reports on brain drain, particularly in Africa, and we were particularly instrumental in the new PEPFAR reauthorization (the President’s AIDS funding) to get included in that reauthorization the money for 45,000 new health care workers in Africa. The brain drain issue is obviously complicated, but let me take it from the developing countries’ perspective, rather than the United States’ perspective. The vicious cycle that happens is: the United States sends money for PEPFAR to, let’s say, Uganda, and the money is going primarily to folks in the capital. And so, the doctors and nurses from the inner lands are coming into the capital to get much greater salaries than they were getting working out in a clinic. They come into the capital in Uganda, and then Americans and other Europeans come in and “poach” them from the capital because they are now the most skilled, have the most training and greatest ability. So it’s almost like this vicious circle: we fund them to help their people, we pull them into the city, then we steal them from them and do it again and again and again. So I think brain drain is a really complicated issue, both if you’re in Nebraska and if you’re also in Impala, and just taking doctors and nurses from developing countries to meet the growing need here is not helping the developing countries that we claim to be helping. I think we need to come up with some other solution. We’ve been working a lot with developing countries in how they build a workforce. We just published a document that is a sort of “how-to” for developing countries on how to build a health workforce system–how to retain health care workers. But I think it is wrong for the U.S. to fund getting doctors to move from the clinics to the capital and then stealing them for [ourselves]. We see that in Britain and we see that in the U.S. all the time.

HCGHR: What do you believe to be one of PHR’s most successful campaigns/projects and why do you think that it has worked out so well?

Donaghue: I’ve only been here for two years, so it’s hard for me to say. Obviously, being a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for our campaign to ban landmines is huge. There aren’t many organizations who have won a Nobel Peace Prize. I think it’s indicative of exactly what PHR does. We’re really good at creating a campaign, creating public pressure around an issue and mobilizing people to become activists. Since I’ve been here, certainly our Health Action AIDS program [has been successful], which is all about AIDS in Africa and getting PEPFAR reauthorized, getting language around health care workers, and the whole feminization of AIDS coming to light. During the Bush administration, PEPFAR was just dropping pills all over Africa, but you can’t stop AIDS that way. You can only stop AIDS when you take a more comprehensive approach. For example, teaching people about reproductive health, allowing women to say “no.” The Bush administration said “reproductive health” was code for “abortion,” so you couldn’t get any money being used for reproductive health. Also [successful has been] lifting the travel ban on people who are HIV positive. Those have been the big issues most recently. We did get the reproductive health in the reauthorization, we did get health care and health workforce in the reauthorization, and so I think those are all really positive accomplishments. Personally, I think Zimbabwe was amazing for us. I got a call in November from a medical student. I said, “How are you doing, Norman?” and he said, “I’m doing as well as everyone else.” I said, “No, how are you doing?” He said, “I’m just sitting here like everyone else waiting to die.” That was the day we decided to go, and we were on the ground in 30 days, and the report was released worldwide in another 30 days. I think it was a real indication that PHR and the way we operate is somewhat different. We can be much faster in the way we bring data to the field. For me, that personally has been the most rewarding. But I think everything we do, for example the work for the campaign against torture, is mind-boggling and astounding. We have a full-time person that just investigates… every single aspect of the administration (the previous administration) and what they did to perpetrate torture on human beings. His work and the way we release it: we don’t always come out with what we know with the name PHR on it. We deal with a lot of media, reporters, providing them with information they can use to further our work because justice doesn’t need our name on it…

HCGHR: In a Physicians for Human Rights article on health professionals’ involvement in monitoring and aiding torture, PHR calls for those who violated ethical standards to be held accountable through criminal prosecution. What about professionals who were truly just there to monitor the interrogations and did not contribute to the torture techniques?

Donaghue: We believe that psychologists and physicians should not be present during any torture. That is a violation of the very core of why they’re healers. However, the psychologists that were involved primarily with the CIA developed a reverse interrogation technique… This was a training that we used to provide American soldiers when they were being tortured [on] how to avoid torture. That’s how it all started. It was invented by some psychologists in California, and they sold it (literally) for lots of money–how to teach that and how to break people. So we used it for our people on how to protect them, and we used it for our people on how to torture others. So a guy comes in to Guantanamo, a psychologist meets with him, and determines that the issues that will really crack this guy are, say, sexual humiliation or isolation, because these are the things that they are psychologically most vulnerable to. Then they feed that information to the torturers so that the U.S. CIA can use those very specific techniques to break these people. It’s more than just being present. We wrote a report called “Broken Laws, Broken Lives,” which is our last report on torture. We sent doctors, psychologists to interview a dozen men who had been in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. The stories in the books are so disgusting that the doctors that reviewed the document, our board of advisors, said it was almost something you couldn’t read–guys being face down in urine for weeks, soldiers sticking guns in them every day for weeks, untold sexual humiliation, isolation for months, never seeing another human being. There is one story where they would play [recordings of] screaming women in the next room and tell these guys it was their wife or their 12-year-old daughter that they were raping. Psychologists were present. You can’t tell me under any code of ethics that that is acceptable. It’s totally a lie that these psychologists were present to protect the victim of torture. They were there to empower the CIA on how to break these people more thoroughly. In the past six years, we’ve been really instrumental in getting the American Medical Association to adopt a policy that physicians could not be present during torture. It’s very clear that the American Psychological Association has, if you will, “gotten in bed with the Devil,” and they’ve made a lot of money on selling their “souls” to the CIA. We brought much of that to light. It continues to come to light that the leadership of the American Psychological Association should be held accountable for the torture and destruction of the lives of thousands of people.

HCGHR: Can you tell us more about a PHR project on which you are currently working?

Donaghue: We have a couple of exciting projects. One is our continuing campaign against torture… It is being funded primarily by Atlantic philanthropies to continue to demand accountability and holding those who did this accountable and prosecuting them. We work full time on gathering evidence–everything from those doctors and psychologists engaged in it to others in the military and the government who knowingly committed these crimes at the highest level of the administration, including the [former] vice president. Asylum is another project we’re working on. Our custody work is around torture because it’s about being held in custody and also asylum seekers in this country. A woman who was genitally mutilated in her previous country, under the Bush administration, could be sent back to her country because she couldn’t be mutilated again…The arcane rules that are put in place for asylum seekers in this country are pretty outrageous. People are being put in mandatory detention and there is a crazy guideline that if you don’t request asylum within 365 days, you are automatically refused it. Most people that come into this country to seek asylum don’t know that rule, first of all, and live in their own communities and they don’t get all their facts that they need. For a woman who was raped in her country, [who] is often afraid to tell her family what happened once she gets here, getting the opportunity and understanding the law in order to gain asylum is really difficult. Number two, border control people can meet an asylum seeker at the border in Mexico and decide that you’re lying and send you back. It’s totally up to the border control people, so there is no real filter to say if these people are telling the truth. It’s basically happening by some policeman at a border deciding if this woman is telling the truth about her life being destroyed. Third, the health system in detention centers is deplorable. Often these people that come here to seek freedom from untold oppression and torture are treated very poorly. The government contracts with the same companies they contract to monitor “terrorists” and prisoners, so many detention seekers are treated like prisoners. They’re kept in detention centers just like prisoners; they’re treated like prisoners. The health care system is deplorable. So far this year, 60 people have died seeking asylum in this country for lack of medical care. These are people that left their country where they were tortured or abused and come here for freedom and die in our care. That’s outrageous. So we’re working on asylum. Basically, we’re pushing for removing mandatory detention, pushing for an improved health care system for asylum seekers…The other project is a study [we just released] called “Nowhere to Turn.” We sent doctors, women doctors, of course, into Chad to survey women who had been raped in Darfur as a weapon of war. It’s about our third report on Darfur and our goal is to launch a major, international project next year on how local NGOs can document rape and the impact of that in order to get the perpetrators. Right now, there’s obviously doctors doing this. I met a doctor from Congo, and I asked him what was the youngest and oldest female he had seen who had been raped. The youngest was 5 and the oldest was 85! And they were repeatedly raped. Rape is an increasingly serious weapon of war. We know it is used in Uganda, Congo, and particularly throughout Southern Africa. So our project would be to work with local NGOs and teach them how to gather the forensic evidence and documentation to prosecute those who are guilty of rape. It really could be a significant change agent because the women and women doctors in these countries are just speaking to each other. They don’t have access, the Congolese people to the Ugandan people.


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