Science in the Service of Human Rights
From satellite images of impending crop failures to studies of disparities in health care delivery to air quality measures hinting at environmental risk for vulnerable populations, science can give human rights advocates the data they need to identify issues and help sway policy makers, said speakers at a AAAS workshop.
While discrimination and personal security remain urgent issues, economic and social rightssuch as the right to food and adequate health carehave become a more visible part of the global human rights agenda in recent years, according to Audrey R. Chapman, director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program.
Attendees at the 25-26 July workshop, organized by Chapman's office, included scientists, human rights advocates and agency officials. They discussed ways to better integrate the efforts of scientific researchers and human rights advocates. In some cases, that may mean a changed perspective on already available data.
Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, noted there have been more than 600 published studies that help demonstrate disparities in the quality of medical care by race in the United States. They include studies showing that African-Americans receive fewer referrals for kidney transplants, less adequate medication to control pain, fewer hospital admissions for cardiac care, fewer prescriptions for drugs called beta blockers after heart attacks.
Such disparities "have not been identified as a civil rights concern," Rubenstein said. He said the "right to equal treatment" deserves more attention, citing the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which the United States has ratified, as an appropriate mandate for action.
Ann Blyberg, executive director of the International Human Rights Internship Program, discussed the use of budget analysis to advance human rights. A "right to health" case in Mexico, cited by Blyberg, found that investments in health lagged behind growth in other sectors and that underinvestment in poor regions was particularly problematic.
Statistical analyses of maternal mortality rates, hospital spending, and other factors found that the poor and marginalized populations received a smaller share, per capita, of the nation's health care expenditures than those who were formally employed. There were fewer qualified health practitioners in the rural southern states of Mexico where maternal mortality was greatest.
Blyberg said rights advocates have been pressing for more transparency in the budget process in Mexico and elsewhere so that disparities in spending can be addressed.
Applied budget analysis can be a powerful tool for human rights advocates, agreed Ramona Ortega de Araujo of the Urban Justice Center in New York City. "Budgets are the concrete means by which governments either fulfill or violate human rights agreements," she said. Rather than just lobbying for increased funding each year when budgets are adopted, she said, advocates can use budget analysis tools to track the quality and sustainability of programs to reduce hunger or improve housing.
Karim Ahmed of the non-profit National Council for Science and the Environment said indicators of air quality and other environmental factors can be used to determine the state of human health in communities around the globe. The AAAS, in cooperation with the council and the Global Children's Health and Environment Fund, recently published a manual of environmental health indicators and benchmarks that were selected from a human rights perspective.
The report, available here is meant to help organizers of community-based projects assess the impact of a polluted environment on the most vulnerable members of a populace, including young children, the elderly and the chronically ill.
Molly Brown, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, described the work of the Famine Early Warning System network, a program of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The network uses data from remote-sensing satellites to try to predict areas where crop failures may lead to food scarcity. The goal is to provide policy makers with meaningful data, she said, rather than just vegetation maps with multiple colors that mean little to non-scientists. "It's all about the credibility of the information and consensus building," Brown said. The analysts also use other data such as rising food prices, reduced school attendance and population migration trends to help determine the severity of a region's food problems. Even when the satellite data and other indicators are compelling, Brown said, it can take from 6 to 18 months for humanitarian aid to flow.
27 July 2005