30 Years of Human Rights

» 30 Years of Human Rights

In 2020 we celebrate the 30th anniversary of HealthRight International. Over the years, this organization has had many faces, but our mission has remained the same since day one: Health and human rights are inextricably linked, and we as a global society must ensure that all people can exercise this right. Since 1990, we have supported marginalized communities all over the world, and we want to share their stories with you. Below, you can explore 30 stories covering 30 years of human rights work. A new story will be added each week.

We hope you enjoy this historical exploration, may it inspire you to stand up for human rights in whichever way you can.


1994: Chiapas, Mexico

Four nurse auxiliaries from Chiapas sitting on a bench, smiling

Four newly trained Nurse Auxiliaries in Chiapas

In 1994, HealthRight began supporting the work of the Hospital San Carlos (HSC), in Chiapas, Mexico. Run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul since 1976, the hospital was the only source of health care for an underserved populations of thousands of rural indigenous people in highland Chiapas.

Indigenous communities in Chiapas had long been marginalized, suffering disproportionately from tuberculosis and other preventable infectious diseases. Most of the patients who came to HSC did not speak Spanish – only their indigenous languages Tzeltal or Tojolabal – while doctors and nurses spoke only Spanish. This communication barrier between patients and providers added to the exclusion and inequality that indigenous patients already faced. The UN and other human rights observers have documented the harmful effect of this scenario on indigenous women all over Central America. In Mexico, for example, indigenous women have been sterilized or given Caesarean sections without explanation or consent. Mexican physicians often claimed that the women could not speak Spanish and thus the procedure could not be explained to them.

1993: The Human Rights Clinic was founded

A physician is examining a man's arm

An HRC client is receiving physical evaluation for signs of injuries

Through HealthRight’s work with Haitian refugees who were being detained indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay (see 1992) – documenting the asylum seekers’ trauma and advocating on their behalf – the Human Rights Clinic (HRC) was born. Founded in the Bronx in 1993, the program began as a partnership with the North Central Bronx Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center’s Residency Program in Primary Care and Social Internal Medicine.

The HRC recruits, trains, and deploys a network of volunteer physicians and mental health professionals who provide forensic evaluations, translating scars and symptoms into pivotal evidence for immigrants seeking asylum and other relief in the United States.

1992: Haitian Refugee Crisis and Guantanamo Bay

A painting of Haitian refugees detained in a camp in Guantanamo, Cuba

A painting of Haitian refugees detained in a camp in Guantanamo, Cuba

One of HealthRight’s earliest projects came out of the Haitian refugee crisis of the early 90s. Following a coup d’état in Haiti in September 1991, the new military regime began persecuting the former president’s followers and other dissenters, causing thousands to flee Haiti. By February 1992, the US Coast Guard had picked up over 14,000 refugees and detained them in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Beginning in May 1992, most refugees were repatriated to Haiti, while about one third received asylum in the US. However, 270 HIV+ refugees and their family members who had been granted asylum were barred from entering the US because of their HIV status and remained in Guantanamo Bay. “These refugees lived in deplorable conditions, were subjected to violence and repression by the US military, deprived of proper medical care, and left without any legal recourse of rights,” wrote migration scholar Karma Chávez.

1991: Doctors of the World-USA

Photo of people sitting at a presentation featuring the Doctors of the World logo

A presentation from the early days of DoW-USA

DoW-USA was the US branch of Médecins du monde, a humanitarian organization originally formed in 1980 by Bernard Kouchner. Jonathan Mann sought to expand upon DoW’s model to focus on linking health and human rights.

When Dr. Mann founded the organization, it had one or two paid staff and about five board members. During this time, meetings were sometimes chaotic and disorganized, but the organization worked tirelessly to foster collaboration between clinicians, public health leaders, and community organizations.

1990: Dr. Jonathan Mann founds HealthRight

Photo of Dr. Jonathan Mann

Dr. Jonathan Mann

“AIDS cannot be stopped in any one country unless it is stopped in all countries,” Dr. Jonathan Mann wrote in a 1987 report on the WHO Global Programme on AIDS, which he had established just ten months earlier. At the time, he did not know that he would part ways with the organization within three years to pursue independent solutions for the human rights calamities created by the AIDS pandemic.

Jonathan Mann received his undergraduate education at Harvard College, graduating in 1969, before earning his MD at Washington University School of Medicine in 1974. Following medical school, he worked as an epidemiologist in New Mexico for the US Public Health Service and the New Mexico Health Services Division.