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Connecting Health and Human Rights

Connecting Health and Human Rights

Yukyan Lam, lawyer and PhD student seeks to use public health expertise to strengthen her claims for justice.


Human rights lawyer and International Health doctoral student Yukyan Lam spent five years in Colombia working on behalf of victims who had lost family members during that country’s decades-long internal conflicts.

Victory sometimes meant a public apology to families, or a modest financial compensation to victims. Often missing from the equation, in Lam’s mind, was any recognition of the health effects on those she represented, many of whom sought justice for relatives who had “disappeared” or were murdered in massacres committed by paramilitary groups.

“It allowed me to see the interdependence between health and human rights,” says Lam. “You really can’t have one without the other.

“You can give families legal victories,” she adds, “but at the end of the day, many still suffer trauma and substantial psychosocial impacts. And the health system is not ready to address that.”

The health-human rights connection inspired Lam to further her education to bring the science of public health to her legal and advocacy work.

“You need the public health expertise to assess health impacts," Lam says, the psychological effects of human rights abuses, for example, or how the loss of natural resources impacts a community's health. "It can be a very powerful way to make your claim for justice that much stronger.”

Here at the Bloomberg School, Yam is working with Professor Robert Lawrence, MD, a longtime leader at the intersection of health and human rights. With Physicians for Human Rights, he took part in many international human rights investigations, and now focuses on issues of food equity, health, and natural resources as director of the Center for a Livable Future.

“People like him are really my role models,” Lam said. “He’s a prime example of how rigorous academic research can be combined with advocacy.”

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