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AAAS Symposium Explores Importance of Human Rights Role for Science Societies
Decades after scientists worldwide mounted a global effort to protect colleagues in the Soviet Union, a new generation of scientists is working to bring the energy and tools of science to bear on a range of human rights issues. The subject is on the agenda of a number of scientific societies, at times provoking heated debate within the membership.
Marking the 59th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP) hosted a symposium to explore the role of scientists and scientific societies in this important area and the implications of international human rights standards and norms for the conduct of science. Held on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, the symposium featured a distinguished panel of scientists and lawyers who discussed the ongoing efforts and debates within their organizations and professions.
SHRP works with scientists to promote and protect human rights at home and around the world. As part of this effort, SHRP is actively building the Science and Human Rights Coalition, a network of scientific associations committed to collaborating on human rights and providing scientific expertise and support to the human rights community.
SHRP also works to identify and develop scientific tools and technologies that could benefit the work of human rights organizations. A recent example of this is the Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights Project, which is using satellite imagery to support human rights efforts in Zimbabwe, Burma and elsewhere. With the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approaching, AAAS staffers are accelerating their efforts to bring more scientists and science to human rights.
"American scientists have been engaged in human rights advocacy for a long time, specifically on behalf of persecuted colleagues in the former Soviet Union," said SHRP Director Mona Younis in her opening remarks at the symposium. However, recalling a 1998 Science article by James Glantz, she noted that, following the Cold War, interest in human rights by many organizations appeared to slip into a long-term decline.
In recent years, the trend has been reversed and scientists are expanding their efforts in new directions, such as identifying human rights applications for new technology. "While resuming their energetic protests against the suppression and detention of scientists and scholars around the world, U.S. scientists are now also calling attention to our government's obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights and are examining the implications of these obligations for the conduct of their professions," Younis said.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the founding document of international rights law, was adopted by the United Nations without dissent on 10 December 1948. The United States was the primary mover in shaping the content of the declaration, with Eleanor Roosevelt chairing the multinational drafting committee. Article 19 has always been of special importance to scientists: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
George J. Annas
George J. Annas, chair of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights at Boston University's School of Public Health, discussed the relevance and value of the human rights system to current national and international events. Annas is co-founder of Global Lawyers and Physicians, a transnational professional association whose mission is to promote human rights in health.
"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has tremendous currency in the world today as the global text of world humanity," Annas said. "It is the basis of 150 other treaties, conventions and regional declarations on human rights."
Annas expressed dismay over the current debate in the United States over torture, a war crime and crime against humanity that is one of the clearest violations of human rights that exists. "Of all things, in this country, we're debating what torture means and how far can we go. Should scientists and physicians be involved in this debate? Or, is it just for politicians?" Annas asked rhetorically. He is also a member of the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academy of Science, a group actively involved in defending the human rights of scientists around the world.
Annas pointed out that basic scientific, medical and human rights principles are the same across borders. "The ability of the medical, legal and scientific professions to transcend geography and individual states makes them especially powerful," he concluded. "and I think that they have a special obligation to promote human rights for all citizens of the world."
Linda M. Woolf
Another speaker, Linda M. Woolf, talked about the challenges faced by large professional organizations in putting human rights into practice. Woolf, a professor of Peace Psychology and International Human Rights at Webster University and a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), noted that the APA has a long history of dealing with human rights issues; in 2006 and 2007, she said, it passed resolutions condemning torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. However, she stressed that these resolutions do not prohibit psychologist's involvement in interrogations at settings where governments routinely violate prisoner's human rights.
Woolf pointed out that the APA represents a diverse group of professionals, made up of dozens of different specialties, with a membership of over 148,000. "It is difficult to write policy that is inclusive of all the disciplines," she said. Moreover, she added, that when proposed policy resolutions are controversial, members often threaten to leave the association. "This dynamic works to maintain the status quo," she said.
Woolf disagreed with the APA's current position of supporting psychologist engagement in prisoner interrogations at sites for "enemy combatants" such as Guantanamo Bay. In her view, prisoners are denied due process, are held indefinitely, live in cruel, inhuman, or degrading conditions, and may be subjected to "harsh interrogation" techniques. In conclusion, Woolf expressed concern that the APA has turned its back on international human rights and has become historically linked to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the CIA sites.
Robert Albro, a member of American Anthropological Association (AAA) Ad Hoc Commission for Anthropology's Engagement with the Security and Intelligence Communities, discussed the commission's recently released report and the ethical and human rights debates within the anthropology profession.
"For the last year and a half at least, the most prominent debate in the discipline of anthropology has been about what, if any, working relationship it should have with the military, security, and intelligence communities," explained Albro, an assistant professor of International Communication in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. "At times, it has been an acrimonious debate."
The debate stems from the U.S. military's Human Terrain System Project, which has involved placing anthropologists as contractors with military teams in Iraq and Afghanistan for the purpose of collecting social and cultural data for use by military field commanders. Albro reported that the ad hoc commission opted not to condemn engagement with the military per se. Recognizing that the military is being tasked with operations other than war, such as humanitarian relief, nation-building and peace-keeping, the ad-hoc commission suggested that there are forms of engagement for the profession that do meet the standards of anthropological conduct, such as cultural education, policy work, organizational study and analyst activity.
John C. Bradshaw
Attorney John C. Bradshaw, director of public policy with Physicians for Human Rights, offered some brief remarks on the presentations. He emphasized that his organization benefits from the help of scientists and health professionals. "The science professionals are in a unique position to help human rights, largely, because of the esteem of their professions. They are believed to operate with a high degree of integrity and objectivity," he observed.
With respect to his organization's work on torture, he cited the help of scientists and medical professionals in conducting clinical analysis of torture victims and in writing and reviewing a report on the legal and medical effects of torture. Bradshaw also pointed to the effect of APA's resolution on torture in his meetings with policy-makers. "It carries tremendous weight," he noted, "coming from such a large organization."
"We should remember on International Human Rights Day that human rights instruments are not self-enforcing," he concluded. "It's only in those countries where civil society, non-governmental organizations and scientific communities can push their own governments to respect their norms will the instruments have any impact. There is a need for long-term advocacy."
Pamela A. Houghtaling
4 January 2008