Forensics, Internet Freedom Cited as Key Junctions for Science and Human Rights

Patricia Davis | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Isaac Newton famously attributed his insights to standing on the shoulders of giants. Today, as in Newton's time, "it is the free flow of information that makes such a vantage point possible," said Patricia Davis, director of the Office of Global Programs at the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

"Knowledge depends on the ability to communicate without fear, to share findings without reprisal, to collaborate and associate, to read widely, and to give our curiosity free reign. Without these basic, fundamental human rights, science is hobbled."

While these human rights make scientific progress possible, the reverse is true as well: science has made "spectacular contributions to the advancement of human rights" according to Davis, who cited forensics and internet freedom as two key areas in the 21st century.

Davis was the keynote speaker at the biannual meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, 14-15 July.  The coalition is a network of scientific and engineering membership organizations that recognize a role for scientists and engineers in human rights. 

The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, or DRL, as it is called, manages a budget of about half a billion dollars per year spread across 350 human rights-related programs spanning the globe, including many that focus on forensics or internet freedom.

Some regimes use information technology to limit their citizens' freedoms online, to carry out surveillance, and to reveal dissenters' identities and persecute them for their online activities. DRL supports a number of researchers and programs that work on anticensorship technologies and strategies for internet freedom, Davis said. For example, one of their partners has launched a "Digital Defenders" project, which offers online resources for scientist-activists who are the victims of a cyberattack or whose activity on the Internet is being repressed.

DNA identification technology also has a variety of uses for helping people dealing with the aftermath of human rights violations, according to Davis. Some of the programs funded by DRL focus on helping governments or other organizations carry out forensic investigations, while others provide accurate and reliable numbers on missing persons and locations of mass graves. Other programs support individual victims and families, helping to confirm the identities of deceased persons or to connect living relatives with each other.

From left, Nahal Zamani, Ana Ayala, Jennifer Wagner, and Eric Ashcroft | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Some DNA program efforts can raise complex legal and ethical questions, however, and Jennifer Wagner, a 2014-2015 AAAS Congressional Fellow and former research associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Integration of Genetic Healthcare Technologies, and Sara Katsanis, an Instructor of Science & Society at Duke University, are conducting interviews, surveys, and focus groups around two such programs to learn more about the perspectives of the people involved and to develop "best practices" guidelines.

One program is the Dallas Prostitute Diversion Initiative's High Risk Potential Victim's DNA Database, a voluntary DNA collection program for sex workers, which is intended to help with post-mortem identification after violent crimes and potentially could also help identify victims of human trafficking. Wagner and Katsanis have been studying this program and identified key challenges, such as ensuring that participants are consenting voluntarily to providing DNA samples and that these samples are not used for purposes other than those of the program's mission.  A second program Wagner and Katsanis have been investigating is the use of DNA testing in U.S. immigration, including the Priority Three (P3) Refugee Program.

Wagner was part of a plenary panel at the Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting, along with other researchers who described their work applying science and technology to human rights.

Ana Ayala of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University presented the Global Health and Human Rights Database, a free online database of law from around the world relating to health and human rights, which was developed by the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and Lawyers Collective, in collaboration with a worldwide network of civil society partners. The database currently contains information about more than 1,000 judgments, and Ayala said she and her colleagues are hoping to take the project into an analytical phase, to track trends within the health and human rights field.

Eric Ashcroft of the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project described how his group uses high-resolution satellite images to investigate claims of human rights violations. For example, AAAS conducted a recent analysis of land-use changes in Bahrain at the request of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which was concerned that land reclamation and development projects are not benefitting all Bahraini citizens. The report documented substantial environmental change on the island, including shifting vegetation and a more than doubling of the extent of urbanization. In a fourth presentation, Nahal Zamani of the Center for Constitutional Rights shared her thoughts about the potential application of social science research for developing a more sophisticated understanding of economic, social, and cultural rights violations.

After the keynote and plenary events, a series of symposia, workshops, and planning meetings filled the rest of the two-day meeting at AAAS. Topics included Evaluating Effective Tactics for Protecting Colleagues at Risk, Teaching Human Rights in Science and Engineering Courses, and Indicators for Human Rights.

A reception at the end of the first day honored the two first-place winners of the coalition's first essay contest, Wasiu Adedapo Lawal of the University of Texas at Arlington, who won in the graduate student category for the essay, "Water as a Friend and a Right"; and undergraduate Surabhi Chaturvedi of the National Law Institute University, Bhopal, for 
"Satellite Imagery in International Human Rights Litigation."