Incubator Hosts Discussion on Human Rights

February 12, 2016
Alicia Ely Yamin.

On Tuesday, January 26, 2016, the Incubator welcomed invited guests and discussants to a roundtable celebration of the new book, Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter, by human rights lawyer, Alicia Ely Yamin. Yamin is Lecturer on Law and Global Health, and Director of the JD/MPH program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH), as well as Policy Director at the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, and Global Fellow of the Centre on Law & Social Transformation, in Bergen, Norway. Her new book uses stories to invite a diverse audience—students, legal and public health practitioners, and interested lay readers—to explore what a human rights framework implies, the potential for social transformation it entails, and the impact human rights-based approaches (HRBAs) have had on people’s lives and health outcomes. The event was co-sponsored by the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator at Harvard University, directed by Dr. Sue J. Goldie, and the Human Rights Program (HRP) at Harvard Law School, co-directed by Professors Gerald L. Neuman and Tyler Giannini.

Deborah Maine, Professor Emerita of Clinical Population and Family at Columbia University and one of Yamin’s early mentors, recalled the key role Yamin played in envisioning and integrating human rights concerns into Maine’s public health work to improve global emergency obstetric care (EmOC) that saves women’s lives. Most obstetric complications that cause maternal deaths cannot be prevented or predicted, but they can be treated. “Historically maternal mortality is one of the very few things for which medical technology was the key,” she said. Integrating a rights-based framework into EmOC clarified the injustice of maternal mortality still being common in today’s world, and also brought new tools to help reduce it: international and national courts, laws, and international treaty obligations.

Katharine Young, Associate Professor of Law at Boston College Law School, also a discussant in the roundtable celebration, praised the book for its globalized approach, feminist methodology, and ambitious scope. This is a model “for what truly globalized scholarship should look like,” she emphasized. “The book engages a very positional epistemology that is familiar in feminist scholarship and opens up a new form of scholarship in extremely sophisticated ways.”

“This is a book about the most pragmatic form of solidarity,” said Paul Farmer, Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine, author of the book’s Foreword, and one of the roundtable discussants. It is also, he added, “a beautiful book about embodiment,” a narrative that proceeds “from law to public health to an understanding of a complex embodied phenomenon to social theory; how poverty and gender inequality and other structural constraints come together to constrain agency for poor people and particularly for poor women—this is something that we all struggle to speak about eloquently and teach about better.”

Addressing the roundtable’s thirty participants—including her mentors and guests—Yamin took a few minutes to reflect on the book’s background and her goals in shaping its particular narrative. “This book is not really for you,” she said wryly to an audience largely drawn from seasoned academics in public health and law. It is meant, rather, she emphasized, “to widen the circle,” to reach people who may know very little about international law or global health. Rich in stories drawn from her experiences over decades and around the globe, the narrative is also inevitably personal. “Not in the sense of ‘I’m special,’ but quite in the opposite sense, that understanding ourselves requires us to understand the stories of others,” she said. That is, she explained in connection with the notion of dignity that relates to human rights, “We are ends and not means. And we need to treat ourselves with dignity, as ends. But that also, in a Kantian imperative, has implications for how we treat others, and how we treat the rest of humanity. That is a theme that runs throughout the book and has tectonic implications for the way global health and development is carried out.” Such changes require re-thinking both human rights and public health, including enduring approaches that strengthen health systems.

The book is “a powerful account of the right to health and the difficulties that need to be overcome in realizing the right to health—and also a strong testimony to the indivisibility of human rights,” said Gerald L. Neuman, Co-Director of the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program, in his welcoming remarks. Other mentors and faculty guests who joined in the celebration and conversation included Harvard Law School professors Henry Steiner, I. Glenn Cohen, and Mindy Jane Roseman; Harvard Medical School/HSPH emeritus professor Felton James “Tony” Earls; HSPH and FXB Center Senior Visiting Scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Gibbons; Myriam Zuber, FXB International Liaison Officer; and Susan Cook, Executive Director of the Harvard University Center for African Studies.

The co-sponsored event reflects an example of the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator’s mission-driven commitment to foster collaborative partnerships and to create inclusive learning spaces for dialogue across sectors and disciplines.

Dr. Sue J. Goldie, Incubator Faculty Director, concluded the discussion by inviting Yamin to share some specific dreams for how the book and its message might change the world. In response, Yamin invited everyone in the room to think about ways to improve graduate education. Against the common pattern in public health curricula, for example, to focus on methods courses that risk producing “technocrats,” she urged more deliberate attention to innovative thinking about dignity, suffering, agency, and power. “I would like some of the students to read this book and think about other possibilities,” she said. “That social change actually is possible. And that we can all be agents of social change.”