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AAAS Leads Planning for a Science and Human Rights Coalition
Through its Science and Human Rights Program, AAAS is leading plans for a new collaboration on human rights involving many science associations. The Science and Human Rights Coalition, scheduled for launch early next year, is meant to broaden the scientific community's involvement with human rights. Organizers say that could include more attention to the right of all to share in the benefits of scientific progress.
The Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP) has been hosting a series of planning meetings with representatives of scientific and academic associations to develop the framework for the new coalition. The goal is to help scientific societies more readily coordinate their efforts on human rights issues and provide scientific expertise to the global human rights community.
"We're moving very deliberately, very thoughtfully," said Mona Younis, SHRP director, "to ensure that we proceed together from a shared vision and commitment for the long haul." The fifth in a series of planning meetings is scheduled for June 9. The participants have included representatives from such organizations as the American Anthropological Association, the Association of American Geographers, the American Psychological Association, the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Sociological Association, and the American Political Science Association.
The participants have been reviewing the human rights work already being done by scientific and academic societies, drafting goals and areas of work for the new coalition and discussing ways to work together more effectively on issues of concern.
"The world faces a huge number of human rights problems," said Al Teich, director of Science and Policy Programs at AAAS. "Science and scientists have a vital role to play in addressing these problems. Every field of science has something to contribute, but we all have limited resources. By organizing this coalition, AAAS is hoping to leverage the resources of individual scientific organizations. Together we can accomplish what none of us can do alone."
AAAS and other scientific organizations long have been concerned with the welfare of individual scientists whose rights are threatened. Younis said that by combining their efforts, scientific organizations should become more effective in defending colleagues under threat. Improving work in that area is one objective of the coalition. Exploring new areas is another.
Through the coalition, for example, members may tackle the right of all people to share in the benefits of scientific progress. That right, which is not widely known, is spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). It is also at the heart of AAAS's core mission to advance science and serve society, Younis said.
"This is one of the most neglected of human rights," Younis said, "and as scientists we should worry about this." A government's duty to respect, protect and fulfill that right will involve ensuring the freedom to think and exchange ideas readily across borders, Younis said. That, in turn, could help ease the "brain drain" from developing nations and make it easier for young researchers to pursue careers in their homeland, she said.
As part of the planning effort, the SHRP conducted a survey last year of 264 science associations and societies to help identify existing human rights efforts within the scientific community. Sixty three associations responded and only 8 reported having active human rights sections or working groups. The American Mathematical Society and the American Physical Society, for example, have human rights committees that intervene primarily on behalf of individual members of their professions who are involved in human rights cases. Other academic organizations, such as the American Political Science Association, promote scholarship on human rights but have only limited human rights activities.
Participants in the coalition's planning meetings agree that more scientific societies should be engaged with human rights and should provide new tools and technologies to help broaden the impact of that engagement. A SHRP survey of 78 human rights organizations highlighted some of the ways science is being used in the service of human rights, including use of information technology, statistics, forensics, psychology, environmental studies and geospatial technologies. (AAAS has an ongoing project to analyze commercial satellite images for evidence of village destruction and other human rights abuses in locales such as Zimbabwe, Darfur, and Burma.)
The survey found no organized effort, however, to mobilize scientists more generally to provide expertise to human rights groups. The coalition's proposed goals include increasing the collaboration among scientific associations and human rights groups, helping scientists get a better understanding of human rights issues, and providing human rights groups more understanding of the tools and expertise that scientists can offer. The coalition partners have been discussing ideas such as creating a network of scientists who might be able to quickly provide pro bono expertise.
The coalition also will promote human rights awareness and programs within scientific associations, professional societies and academic institutions in the United States and abroad. Younis noted that human rights organizations in the United States are catching up with groups around the world in moving beyond the Cold War focus on civil and political rights (with the attendant emphasis on legal expertise) to include concern with economic, social and cultural rights. There has been a corresponding expansion in the types of expertise required.
Where once a human rights campaign might have been dominated by lawyers, she said, there now is a need for experts from many technical disciplines. Budget analysts, for example, are able to determine whether a government is allocating the resources required to meet its human rights obligations in areas such as access to justice, education and health. "We need as much expertise as possible from a whole range of disciplines," Younis said.
And scientists need to become more familiar with some of the documents that underlay international human rights, she said. She mentioned a conversation she had recently with a specialist on water testing who had been approached to provide expertise in a water pollution case. He suggested that access to water should be a human right. Younis told him that, in fact, the equitable access to safe drinking water is a universally recognized human right, and directed him to the Web site of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
2 April 2008