At AAAS Coalition Meeting, Scientists and Human Rights Practitioners Build Stronger Working Relationships

Whether through the application of forensic science to human rights abuses or the use of statistics to assist a human rights tribunal in understanding the dynamics of a mass human rights violation, scientists and human rights organizations often find their work intertwined. Sometimes, though, they do not feel completely comfortable in each others’ worlds.

Maria Koulouris, director of the Natural Resources and Human Rights Initiative at Global Rights, was working with a Guinean nongovernmental organization called CECIDE and local communities in western Africa who felt that their water and environment was being affected by the operations of a large gold mining company nearby. Koulouris knew that she and her partners would need hard evidence to demand that the government, the company, or judicial institutions take action, but she wasn’t sure what sort of evidence was available or how to get it.

 

Maria Koulouris [Photos by Cheryl Toksoz for AAAS]

Maria Koulouris
[Photos by Cheryl Toksoz for AAAS]

“In the beginning, we didn’t know what kind of scientist we actually needed,” Koulouris said at a recent meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition. “We didn’t even know what questions we needed to be asking. But the help we got from AAAS was vital in mobilizing the right person for the job.”

 

Koulouris and other human rights practitioners and scientists offered tips from their working experiences to help bridge the divide between scientists and human rights organizations.

The discussion came during the coalition’s daylong meeting on 11 January at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. The coalition is a network of scientific membership organizations that recognizes a role for science and scientists in efforts to advance human rights. Its goal is to support communication and partnerships on human rights within research communities and between the scientific and human rights communities.

Whether through the application of forensic science to human rights abuses or the use of statistics to help understand the dynamics of a mass human rights violation, scientists and human rights organizations often find their work intertwined. Sometimes, though, they do not feel completely comfortable in each other’s worlds.

During her remarks, Koulouris said that science provided the bridge between what the west African communities were experiencing and what was actually happening in the environment. The experience gave her at least two important lessons: To achieve the best and most credible result, the nongovernmental organization must respect the scientist’s space and objectivity. Second, she said, it was important for the nongovernmental organization and the scientist to communicate clearly.

“Be frank and transparent about what resources are available on either end, what information you have or don’t have, and what the time commitment will be,” she said. “It’s important to maintain constant communication. This way, each person is educating the other and is creating true ownership over the results of the program.”

Philip Fornaci

Philip Fornaci

Philip Fornaci, director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, knew that he needed quantitative and qualitative research for a case he was working on to prove that D.C. prisons were not providing adequate medical care to prisoners, but he had to find a way to cover the costs. The answer came through collaboration between his organization and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“One of the things that keeps people away from scientists and scientific experts is that [they think] it will cost a great deal of money, but that was not the case with this project,” he said. Using students was a win for both sides. The students helped Fornaci and his colleagues to design the survey instruments they needed and advised them how to conduct the surveys so that they would be taken seriously. In return, the students gained valuable real-world experience.

Another obstacle to collaboration can be a misunderstanding of the value of some scientific methods.

Mary Gray

Mary Gray

“Human rights activists tend to have been burned by statistics and then they get cautious,” said Mary Gray, professor and chair of the department of mathematics and statistics at American University. When she works with human rights groups, she tries to provide sources of data and to help them understand the differences between good and bad data.

Although government statistics might appear reliable, she pointed out, the data may or may not be helpful, depending on the way it was collected and its original intended use. One of the problems with United Nations data, for example, is that the best available country-specific data may not come from the same time period, which makes it difficult to compare information across different countries.

Science can also play a role in understanding the human dynamics that are often involved in human rights cases, especially in instances of abuse or displacement. Anne Middaugh, a psychologist with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, explained that people who have been displaced, such as immigrants and refugees, often have experienced trauma that can affect their behavior and put their rights at risk. Psychologists work within the immigration system to help the courts understand how trauma and a person’s mental health status can affect behavior and memory, so that the rights of the immigrant or refugee can be maintained.

As parting advice, both Gray and Middaugh recommended that human rights advocates get advice when they need it and ask scientists to participate as early and as often in the process as possible.

“Human rights activists tend to have been burned by statistics and then they get cautious,” said Mary Gray, professor and chair of the department of mathematics and statistics at American University. When she works with human rights groups, she tries to provide sources of data and to help them understand the differences between good and bad data.

Although government statistics might appear reliable, she pointed out, the data may or may not be helpful, depending on the way it was collected and its original intended use. One of the problems with United Nations data, for example, is that the best available country-specific data may not come from the same time period, which makes it difficult to compare information across different countries.

Science can also play a role in understanding the human dynamics that are often involved in human rights cases, especially in instances of abuse or displacement. Anne Middaugh, a psychologist with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, explained that people who have been displaced, such as immigrants and refugees, often have experienced trauma that can affect their behavior and put their rights at risk. Psychologists work within the immigration system to help the courts understand how trauma and a person’s mental health status can affect behavior and memory, so that the rights of the immigrant or refugee can be maintained.

As parting advice, both Gray and Middaugh recommended that human rights advocates get advice when they need it and ask scientists to participate as early and as often in the process as possible.

Learn more about the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.

Learn more about the AAAS’s “On-call” Scientists volunteer program.