Making Human Rights More Scientific

AAAS launches group aimed not only at protecting rights of scientists, but of bringing scholarly expertise to broader humanitarian efforts.
January 19, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Ask a group of scientists -- heck, ask any group of people -- if they're concerned about human rights, and you'll get few if any dissenters. After all, it's a hard thing not to care about. But it might be a little less clear why scientists, or any professionals, need a formal group to actively involve themselves in human rights issues. Isn't that a role best left to humanitarian groups?

As the American Association for the Advancement of Science formally launched its new Science and Human Rights Coalition at a meeting here last week, the room full of true believers offered a compelling set of reasons why the new organization could offer benefits not just for scientists but, eventually, for potentially troubled people around the world.

"We envision only only deepening our current work on human rights, but expanding it into areas we cannot possibly imagine today," said Mona Younis, who directs the AAAS's current Science and Human Rights Program, from which the broader coalition emerged.

The coalition, which has been several years in the making and gets off the ground representing nearly 50 scientific associations and professional societies, has several key goals in its mission. The most obvious, probably, and the one in which the AAAS and other scholarly groups have been most involved historically, is protecting the human rights of scientists who run afoul of their governments or are otherwise endangered.

On this the coalition will be building on the work of the AAAS's own Committee on Human Rights, which has advocated on behalf of hundreds of scientists and health professionals in its 35 years; groups such as the Scholars at Risk Network and the Network for Education and Academic Rights, which often work to free or provide safe haven to endangered scholars in conjunction with humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International; as well as individual scholarly societies when their own members are targeted.

Fourteen scholarly societies actively participate in these kinds of efforts, but the AAAS has more than 260 affiliated organizations, and "you realize how few are currently engaged in this work," Younis said at last week's launch, either because they lack the capacity or don't perceive the need to do so.

Perhaps the richest potential area of activity for the new organization may be to help bring scientific expertise (in the form of data collection or analysis), knowledge and methods to the work done by human rights and other groups on behalf of people whose rights are being threatened.

At a session designed to highlight the sort of work that is already being done along these lines -- and that the new coalition might encourage and expand -- Jana Asher, a consulting statistician for the Washington Statistical Society, described her work developing surveys that can help human rights groups glean information about "who did what to whom" from populations for which traditional methods won't work.

In Sierra Leone, for example, where some residents in agricultural areas are "time illiterate" (they don't use calendars or think in calendar years), she has helped test a method by which researchers pegged local threats to nationally known events. A sample question she cited: "When the rebels visited your village, was that before or after the invasion of Freetown?"

"There is a growing science around data collection and analysis that we can bring to bear on these issues," Asher said.

Lars Bromley, a project director for the AAAS's Science and Human Rights Program, discussed the program's use of geospatial technologies -- including satellite imagery and GPS data -- to help protect villages in places like Darfur, Sudan and comparatively dangerous areas in Chad. AAAS, working in conjunction with humanitarian groups and with support from the MacArthur and Oak Foundations, has used satellite pictures to provide what Bromley called "protective imagery" designed to show what villages look like before and, if necessary, after attacks by unfriendly forces.

Satellite-based imagery can also be used to corroborate, and add the weight of scientific evidence to, witness-based accounts that governments might be quick to reject as hearsay, Bromley said.

And Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health and head of its Center for Public Health and Human Rights, focused on the need to mesh the work of scientists with human rights approaches. While there is great potential for taking advantage of advances from the current "golden age of biomedical science" to attack the world's health problems, Beyrer said, it will be impossible to attack the abundance of cholera and tuberculosis in Zimbabwe without recognizing that they are "so much outcomes of a political crime." "Responding to the rights deprivation of the Zimbabwean people is the only way out" of the health crisis.

"The separation between science and human rights is both bad science and bad human rights," Beyrer added.

Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk, was among the numerous human rights officials at last week's event who said they welcomed the more expansive scientific intervention that the AAAS initiative foreshadowed.

That is not only because there will be direct, positive implications for the work his organization does in helping threatened scholars, Quinn said, but because scientists and scientific associations have much to offer, through the information they produce, in "eliminating the wiggle room where human rights violations can happen in the dark."


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