IAS President, Chris Beyrer, honors Desmond Tutu’s commitment to human rights

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  • 11/2/2015 10:51:00 AM

Chris Beyrer, MD, MPH '91, will be installed as the first Desmond M. Tutu Professor in Public Health and Human Rights

“FATHER, WE NEED YOUR HELP ON THIS ISSUE,” Chris Beyrer told his South African mentor and friend, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was 2010, and the Ugandan parliament was debating legislation that would increase criminal penalties for homosexuality, including life imprisonment.

As Archbishop of Capetown, Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his fight against South Africa's apartheid laws, which were repealed in 1993. The new president, Nelson Mandela, entrusted Tutu with chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated the atrocities committed under apartheid.

They are an unlikely pair, the young Buddhist American epidemiologist and the elderly Christian African cleric, yet their tandem advocacy for human rights in the realm of public health has been nothing short of historic.

Tutu and Beyrer have collaborated to mobilize support to address issues such as the collapse of the economy and health care system in Zimbabwe in 2008 (for which Beyrer was a co-author of the emergency report by Physicians for Human Rights), the Darfur genocide in Sudan, and the persecution of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the 2,200 political prisoners in Burma. But it was through their alliance on human rights for LGBT Africans that “our relationship changed and got closer,” Beyrer says.

“I have no doubt that in the future, the laws that criminalise so many forms of human love and commitment will look the way the apartheid laws do to us now—so obviously wrong.”
—Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Lancet

In response to Beyrer's request, Tutu penned a Washington Post editorial in which he said, “Hate has no place in the house of God.” He explicitly connected the fact that gay and lesbian Africans lived in fear and hiding, away from the protection of the state, to their inability to access desperately needed HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services.

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