July 10, 2014

Meet Institute Associate Eric A. Friedman, JD, project leader for the Platform for a Framework Convention on Global Health (FCGH), which advocates for a global treaty grounded in the human right to health and aimed at closing health inequities. He holds a law degree from Yale Law School and B.A. from Yale College.

Do you remember when you first realized a career in law was a good fit for you?

In my junior year of college, I took a course on democracy and human rights. At the time, my understanding of human rights was narrow, as I equated human rights with civil and political rights, theAmnesty International prisoners of conscience, and U.S.Bill of Rights,sort of rights. During the first day of that course, the professor described the great expanse of human rights — civil and political, yes, but also economic, social, and cultural, and reaching into development, peace, and the environment. Human rights put a name to my passions. That’s when I knew that my future lay with human rights. Though I have since learned that careers in a great variety of professions can advance human rights, at that point, I believed that the route to human rights was through the law.

When did you identify with the notion of law as a tool for improving public health?

My main focus was poverty, which I saw as perhaps the most widespread and devastating of human rights deficits globally — and one that seemed more attuned to redress than many others, making its persistence particularly unconscionable.As I was finishing college and beginning law school, the AIDS epidemic in Africa was escalating exponentially, bothin the devastation it was causing and in the attention it was receiving. Given the epidemic’s trajectory, it was clear that the AIDS crisis was an urgent priority for addressing poverty in Africa, a region with poverty so deep and so prevalent. AIDS in Africa became my focus.

So it wasn’t so much that I saw law as a tool for improving public health as much as I saw the tool with which I identified, human rights, as one that had to be directed at health, and in particular AIDS. I came to see the power of law as such in improving public health more gradually during law school, when I had the chance to explore the connections between AIDS and human rights. In my work afterwards, I gained a deeper understanding of the right to health and the implications of its legal obligations, with respect both to a country’s own people and to people elsewhere — including, for example, U.S. obligations regarding supporting human rights, including the right to health, abroad.

What was your path to the O’Neill Institute?

I had the good fortune of getting a fellowship to work after law school onthe HIV/AIDS campaign of Physicians for Human Rights, here in Washington. Thanks to a Gates Foundation grant, that turned into a regular job. I focused on AIDS and later the health workforce, health systems, and the right to health more broadly. When funding for my position was coming to an end, my supervisor sent me an O’Neill Institute fellowship e-mail posting. I had never heard of O’Neill, but I recognized the name Larry Gostin from a health and human rights book I remembered from law school. It was a simple application, and my parents insisted it wouldbe silly for me not to apply, soapply I did.

I became seriously interested only later, learning about the Framework Convention on Global Health and a related proposal Larry had at the time, a Global Plan for Justice. A global plan for justice — what could be better than that?!

What are your current projects at the O’Neill Institute?

Continuing that path of what led me here, my main project is the Framework Convention on Global Health (FCGH), which would be a global treaty based in the right to health and aimed atnational and globalhealth equity. The treaty would include standards, processes, and a financing framework to enable universal coverage of health care and the underlying determinants for all people, elevate health in other sectors and international legal regimes, and enhance accountability andparticipation, integrating the principles of equity and non-discrimination throughout.

Aglobal coalition around the FCGH first formed around when I joined the O’Neill Institute in 2010,dubbedtheJoint Action and Learning Initiative on National and Global Responsibilities for Health (JALI), which in 2014 transformed into the Platform for an FCGH. Over time we have gained new partners, including major health and development NGOs, like BRAC and Partners In Health, and leading national health and human rights organizations, along with UNAIDS.

Several weeks ago, in late January 2016, UNAIDS hosted an FCGHside session to the WHOExecutive Board meeting, with representatives of seven states joining. This represents a new stage for the FCGH, one of state engagement. We still have a long way to go, to be sure, but we have now moved beyond the realm of what some would dismiss as naive idealism to states beginning to take thepossibility of the FCGH seriously.

Also, through a new partnership, for the first timewe have the potential to have people at the grassroots, so to speak, heavily engaged in the process. This would begin to realize our long-standing vision of a treaty that is driven bythe people whoare mostaffected by health inequities, a vision that we must hold onto even as we expandefforts around governments, at the other end of the power spectrum.

What excites you most about your work?

The FCGH. By one set of calculations, more than one in three deaths globally is related to health inequity. Yet to date, the most powerful expression of international law, the treaty, has not been used to confront this devastating reality. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to have a hand in trying to help fill this gap.

What’s the next book on your reading list?

It is a very long list and I will never get to most, so let me mention one that I do hope to get to: Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. I expectmuch of the bookwill be beyond me, but it gets to my love for science, for understanding life, the universe, and our place in it. It is all so amazing — I mean, the fact of life, the fact of existence — that I always want to better understand how life works — genetics, for example — and the forces of the universe. It sounds like this book will combine the two, so I hope to be able to read it soon.

Who inspires you?

Let me name a few people from different walks of life. First, Fred Rogers. From everything I know about him, Mr. Rogers — in real life as in his neighborhood — was the epitome of goodness, kindness, and respect for each of us for who we are. I can only hope that some of that decency rubbed off on me. Second, Peter, Paul and Mary, the folk trio. Their songs about justice, their passion in singing them — their insistence upon justice is infectious in the most beautiful way. And third, Rep. John Lewis. After the Senate’s great liberals, Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy, died, I was looking for a new leading light in Congress. Then I realized that he had already long been there. Along with being a moral compass, he has a wonderful optimism about the future and belief in our better selves.

I am fortunate to have small personal connections to each. My father once interviewed Mr. Rogers for an article about sibling relationships (I am very lucky to be a sibling, a twin, myself) a few years after I was born. Then, many years later, he wrote to Mr. Rogers asking for a copy of a book he had written — and Mr. Rogers sent the book, with a personalized inscription to me. We had a few letter exchanges afterwards, which reinforced my understanding of Mr. Rogers as the epitome of goodness, kindness, and gentleness.

I saw Peter, Paul and Mary in person several times, including their last holiday concert (Mary died the following year). A very good friend of my father, Herman, belonged to the New York Choral Society, which sang with PPM during holiday concerts. When I was in college, Herman took a friend and me to a PPM rehearsal, and introduced me to each of them. I was in heaven.

As for John Lewis, a more fleeting connection — a picture with him at the 2014 National Book Festival in Washington (what a smile on my face!), a handshake, and a thank you to him for all he has done. Which reminds me of a one more great inspiration, Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, who I also had the opportunity to thank in person, this time at last year’s National Book Festival. Hewas the first to alert me to the genocide in Darfur more than a decade ago, and like John Lewis, is also a moral light.

Do you have a favorite SCOTUS justice?

On the current Court, my favorites are Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, the most liberal of the current lot. Looking back to recently retired justices, I am also especially fond of Justice Stevens, not only because he became the standard-bearer of the left, but also because I believe he had a special concern for equality, which I thinkshould always be at the forefront of all the Justices’ minds.