Saman Zia-Zarifi: A Quest for Justice in Pursuit of Human Rights

In the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, 15-year-old Saman Zia- Zarifi, A.B. ‘90, J.D. ‘93 left Iran while his parents, microbiologists and political activists, remained behind. They hoped their son would pursue studies in healthcare. But Zarifi took a different route, majoring in biology and society before falling in love with journalism and then changing paths again.

“As an immigrant from Iran without a U.S. passport, I couldn’t pursue a career as a foreign correspondent,” says Zarifi. Instead, with the encouragement of his professor in a class on genetics, ethics, and the law, Zarifi applied to Cornell Law School. “My parents were not happy. My uncle, who had been the only lawyer in the family, was a political firebrand who was arrested, tortured, and killed. My parents once told me, ‘This is what happens to lawyers.’”

All these years later, Zarifi has ended up using his experience to rescue others from his uncle’s fate. After graduating from Cornell Law School in 1993 and working a short stint in corporate law, he earned an LL.M. in Public International Law from NYU School of Law. Now, as executive director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), he brings together his family heritage in public health and political activism with his own passion for the law and the power of the media.

“Defending human rights means recognizing healthcare as a human right. You can’t enjoy other human rights if you’re not healthy,” says Zarifi. “We see injustice in suffering and illness around the world. Physicians have prestige and privilege, and my job is to help them use information and their privilege to seek justice and set policy.” Zarifi’s work in the field, collecting evidence of human rights violations, advances the goal of PHR: “Through evidence, change is possible.”

When Zarifi joined PHR in March 2023, he brought decades of experience in international human rights law, including service to the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. Stephen J. Rapp, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues and head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the U.S. Department of State, serves on the PHR board and recruited Zarifi. “Accountability is fundamental to protecting human rights,” says Rapp. “Judges demand evidence. Without the bricks, you can’t build the case. Sam is indefatigable in this field, and he has a network of allies around the world because he is especially gifted at building rapport with people from all walks of life. A great lawyer is a zealous advocate for his clients. Sam’s clients are the survivors of the world’s worst violations of human rights— people who are most often underrepresented, unseen, and unheard. Sam is energized by them and effectively brings together the survivors and the experts to build the evidence necessary for justice.”

At PHR, Zarifi helped bring to light human rights violations in Tigray, Ethiopia, that continued far beyond the agreement to end hostilities between the government and militia groups. “We worked with Ethiopian doctors who took massive security risks to gather evidence, document atrocities, and share them with us,” says Zarifi. “They wanted our help in raising these issues before the United Nations—to bear witness and demand justice for survivors.”

In July, Zarifi appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council to speak about Russian attacks on Ukraine’s healthcare system, including the destruction of hospitals and ambulances and the arbitrary detention and torture of medical professionals. With documentation at his fingertips, Zarifi declared, “The overwhelming evidence demands justice, including reparations for the $2.5 billion in estimated damages to the healthcare system.”

“The methodology being used in Ukraine today to gather facts, interview witnesses, and produce documentation has its foundation in Sam’s approach, going back many years,” says his former colleague at Human Rights Watch, Olivier Bercault, who now teaches international human rights at the University of San Francisco. “Sam is one of the most brilliant and knowledgeable lawyers I know. Sam brought professionalism and precision into field work with victims of human rights abuses.”

Zarifi understands the power of the media to keep the spotlight on human rights abuses and is often quoted in news articles and interviewed on television and radio, exposing the false narratives of perpetrators and governments. Recently, he called out the U.N. Human Rights Council for failing to renew the mandate of the Independent Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia to pursue justice for victims.

“There is a high level of hypocrisy in the world,” says Zarifi. “Hypocrisy is the space that human rights advance in—the distance between what people say and what they do. Though there has been back-sliding in respect for human rights around the world, there has also been a counter trend in the increased demand for accountability.”

Sirikan Charoensiri, deputy director, attorney and head of international advocacy for Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, credits Zarifi for training her and building her team’s capacity to monitor human rights violations in Thailand.

Sam is one of the most brilliant and knowledgeable lawyers I know. Sam brought professionalism and precision into field work with victims of human rights abuses.”

— Olivier Bercault

She met Zarifi in Bangkok in 2013, when they worked for the International Commission of Jurists developing a report on the disappearance of a Thai lawyer and human rights defender.

“Sam closely advised on how my analysis must include all relevant international human rights to make comprehensive recommendations on how to improve or change the domestic laws and system,” says Charoensiri. “Sam kindly advised me to always be considerate to the family members of the victims and that what we do was to help them access justice, truth, and reparations, not to do harm. His position to always speak out to support local human rights defenders and activists was one of his contributions to the Thai human rights community.”

How does Zarifi measure success in a world where so many suffer? “The human rights framework is not that old,” says Zarifi, noting that 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “The idea that we can now hold a head of state liable for human rights violations is a revolutionary thing. That’s a huge success and a credit to lawyers and human rights advocates. The fact that there could be near universal condemnation of the concept of invading and occupying a country—that’s amazing. These are all advances. In the last 75 years, the arc of human history has bent toward justice. But we have to keep fighting for it.”

Under his leadership, PHR has set its sights on new threats to human rights. For example, PHR is working to ban the term “excited delirium” as a medical diagnosis. It is a term used by police departments to justify the use of force, and was cited as a defense by the police officers who murdered George Floyd. “PHR did the scientific research to prove there was no such thing. It was a ridiculous diagnosis,” says Zarifi.

PHR is also gathering evidence following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, documenting how state abortion bans have raised new obstacles to accessing reproductive healthcare, harmed patients, and impacted clinicians struggling to comply with state law. “These new regulations are so poorly drafted and poorly conceived that they are leading to human and professional disasters,” says Zarifi. “They are just bad laws resulting in an unnecessary public healthcare crisis. The power of PHR is to go beyond politics and focus on the health impact, and we will continue that work.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Zarifi remains optimistic, crediting his wife, Dutch lawyer Karin van Son, and their two sons for keeping him grounded. “There’s a lot of really bad stuff going on in the world. Yet I feel lucky because I’m doing something about it. I don’t feel powerless.”

~ Eileen Korey