About Sameer Dossani

Sameer Dossani is the former Director of Amnesty International's Demand Dignity Campaign. Prior to joining Amnesty in 2009, Sameer served as Director of 50 Years Is Enough: U.S. Network for Global Economic Justice which campaigns for the radical reform of international financial institutions including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Sameer holds degrees in Women's Studies and Philosophy from McGill University, Canada and La Trobe University, Australia.
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First step for the Right to Health Care in the US?

On Sunday night, after more than a year of debate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Health Care Reform legislation. No, the bill was not the one that most human rights advocates wanted to see. And yes, there will be plenty of work to do to ensure that the right to health care is fully met in the United States. But the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care act will soon become the law of the land marks a recognition of how poor our current “profits-before-patients” health care system really is.

Human rights advocates now have their work cut out for them at the federal and state levels to make sure that 2010 marks the beginning of a way out – towards a system where no one is denied care based on an inability to pay and where the government is held accountable for making sure that the system works.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International published Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, which finds that despite spending more per person than any other country on health care, the U.S. ranks behind 40 other countries when it comes to women dying in pregnancy or child birth. The report documents barriers to access in the provision of maternal health care around the country.

Among the horror stories in that report is the case of Starla Darling, a 27-year-old who was close to her due date when she learned that the Ohio cookie plant where she had worked for eight years was going to be closed down and that her health insurance would expire just three days later. Faced with the prospect of paying thousands of dollars in medical bills, Starla asked her caregiver to induce labor two days before her insurance was set to expire. Ultimately, Starla had to have a C-section. To add insult to injury, the insurance company denied her claim as it was so close to the end of her employer-provided insurance coverage, and left her with nearly $18,000 in medical bills. (Robert Pear reported Starla’s story for The New York Times.)

Starla’s story – and those of hundreds like her – are indicative of a larger problem. Private insurance companies use a business model that relies on not providing care. Those who need to access health care are a cost to insurance companies, and like any business, they work to minimize their costs and maximize their profits.


Posted in USA

Fight Poverty by Protecting Human Rights

(Originally published on the Boston Globe)

On the evening of Sept. 18, 2007, six men broke into the home of Justine Masika Bihamba in Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bihamba wasn’t home, but six of her children, ages 5 to 24, were. The men, reportedly government soldiers, tied up the children at gunpoint and abused two daughters in their 20s, sexually assaulting one with a knife. Bihamba and her children identified the attackers to military police but authorities refused to arrest the suspects, saying there was no evidence against them. They remain free today.

The men targeted Bihamba’s children because of her work coordinating medical and psychological care for women and girls who have been sexually assaulted. In the violent conflict that has raged in Congo for a decade, rape is a weapon of war.

The conflict has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced more than a million to flee; it is the latest in Congo’s long and bloody history. During the colonial period, ivory and rubber were the prizes for which Europeans sacrificed African lives. Today, the fighting is fueled by the country’s vast mineral resources – diamonds, gold and coltan, which is used in all mobile phones and laptops. Armed groups control mines and export minerals illegally, using the cash to buy arms.

The mineral wealth is of little benefit to the impoverished Congolese population.

More than 1,000 people die daily from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Most are children. These preventable deaths are human rights abuses in violation of international treaties on the right to health and the rights of the child. Until corporations that benefit from the mineral trade, together with the Congolese government and the international community, are persuaded to end the abuses, cases like Bihamba’s will keep recurring.

Amnesty International campaigns to ensure that human rights defenders like her can carry out their vital work in safety. But to stop the carnage in Congo, we recognize that we must also fight poverty – what Mahatma Gandhi called “the worst form of violence.”

People are accustomed to thinking of human rights violations as abuses committed by repressive regimes – torture, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, enforced “disappearances,” political assassination, and the like.

But the international human rights framework is much broader. Sixty years ago, following the brutality of World War II when the Nazis denied Jews, Roma, gays, and others their very right to exist, the response of the international community was unequivocal – human rights had to be based on the principle of inclusion. That is, everyone is entitled to the same set of rights by virtue of being human. These include the right to freedom from torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and no less importantly, the right to adequate food and shelter, basic healthcare, education and employment. In short, the right to live a life of dignity.

People living in poverty are trapped, much like political prisoners.

Now, as the global economic crisis threatens to push an estimated 53 million more people into poverty this year, Amnesty International is launching the most ambitious campaign of its nearly 50-year history.

Just as we have fought effectively to protect civil and political rights on behalf of tens of thousands of political prisoners, we intend to mobilize our volunteers and supporters to hold governments, corporations, armed groups, and others accountable for the human rights abuses that drive millions around the world into poverty.

Governments have reneged on human rights obligations in the belief that economic growth alone would lift all boats. But now the tide is receding. Virtually none of the growth of the last two decades benefited poor and marginalized communities; instead, the gap between rich and poor only deepened in many parts of the world.

All human rights are interlinked, as the Congo demonstrates. If development was based on the fulfillment of basic human rights instead of skewed toward enriching a few at the expense of many, we might not be witnessing the violent upheaval of Congo and elsewhere.

Without an approach to poverty and development that puts human rights first, there will be many more stories like that of Justine Masika Bihamba.

Easterly on Amnesty's Poverty and Human Rights Campaign

Just a word of introduction as this is my first post here. My name’s Sameer Dossani and I’m the campaign director for the Demand Dignity Campaign, our campaign to address issues relating to Human Rights and poverty. Prior to working with Amensty, I’ve been in the development world critiquing the policies and projects of the IMF and World Bank on human rights grounds. If you’d like to find out more about the campaign please get in touch through the contact us section of this site.

This post was written as a response to a critique of our annual report from the Aid Watch blog.

Bill Easterly takes on Amnesty International’s 2009 Annual Report. I know and respect Easterly’s work; I’ve even been on a few panels with him over the years on aid effectiveness and the World Bank, but I have to say he’s pretty off base here.

The basic premise of his post is this:

The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights. The government officers of the slave-owning antebellum US and the slave-owners were violating the rights of slaves – leading to activism against such violators that eventually yielded the Emancipation Proclamation. The local southern government officers were violating the civil rights of southern blacks under Jim Crow, leading to activism against these violators that yielded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The apartheid government officers in South Africa violated the rights of black South Africans, and activism against these violators brought the end of apartheid.

Easterly then claims that poverty does not fit this definition of rights because “who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income?”

It’s true that lack of income, in and of itself, isn’t a human rights violation. But poverty is about a lot more than just income. As Easterly knows, those who live on less than a dollar a day are poor not just because they lack income; the lack of income implies lack of access to services, clean drinking water, adequate education, housing, employment and so on. All of these are violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. To give just one of many possible examples, estimates indicate that as many as 8,000 children die daily in Africa alone from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. It’s certainly true to say that these are diseases of poverty – the rich can ensure that their water is not contaminated and can seek treatment at private hospitals as opposed to understaffed government clinics – but they are more than that. They are violations of the right to health and the right to clean water.

And people living in poverty are vulnerable to violations of their civil and political rights as well. In the Favelas (shanty towns) of Sao Paolo in Brazil, police and gangs are in daily conflict. There are allegations of human rights abuse on all sides, and the government feels little pressure to respect due process in large part because this violence is taking place in an extremely poor part of the city. Ordinary people are in danger from gangs on the one hand and from a state takes their rights less seriously because they live in a poor community.

These are all human rights violations, and it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to end them. In some cases those actually committing the abuse may not be governments; such as when Dow Chemical refuses to clean up the toxic mess that is still poisoning impoverished communities in Bhopal, India from a disaster that killed thousands in 1984. But in all cases it is ultimately the responsibility of governments to ensure that human rights – including the right to live a life of dignity – are respected.

Human rights abuses cause poverty and keep people poor – and living in poverty makes you more likely to suffer violations of your human rights. So human rights must be part of any solution to poverty.