Doctors: Guardians of Human Rights

Today is Human Rights Day in South Africa, in memory of the Sharpeville Massacre and the many other human rights violations in this country’s history.

The Truth and Reconciliation Committee reported that “[h]ealth practitioners […] have a unique responsibility in society, as healers, to understand and alleviate causes of human suffering, and to promote health.” This being the larger, holistic sense of health.

It is true that doctors made themselves guilty of human rights violations during Apartheid, although not always implicitly so. It seems that bureaucracy did it for them: doctors would see only white patients (in great facilities) or only black patients (in shoddy facilities) not by their own doing, but because those were the facilities patients were admitted to.

There were, of course, those doctors who had more concrete roles, such as those who certified that the deaths of many political prisoners (such as Steve Biko) were of “natural” causes.

It is easy to say that ethics should have prevented them from such action. It is easy to say that doctors should have stood up against such atrocities. I would love to make that claim.

But when I think logically I know that the matter is not so simple. The kind of duress placed upon free speech was widespread and affected white South Africans too. There were those who didn’t know what was going on, and those who were also became painfully aware it was to silence them.

Here is hoping that doctors today can and will make their voices heard, not only in South Africa but the world over. We have long had the image as leaders of the community – let’s embrace it rather than shun it.

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