Richard Pierre Claude, Author and Activist, Honored by AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition

Richard Pierre Claude, professor emeritus of government and politics at the University of Maryland, was honored at a recent meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition as a founding father of efforts to get scientists to take up important work on human rights around the globe.

Richard Pierre Claude

Richard Pierre Claude

Claude’s award-winning 2002 book, “Science in the Service of Human Rights,” is considered a classic in the field. He is also a founding editor of the journalHuman Rights Quarterly, now in its 28th year. Colleagues celebrated Claude’s career and legacy in a 23 July opening plenary session of the Coalition meeting.

Mona Younis, director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, said Claude “arguably has helped bring more science and scientists to human rights than any other person.” And, she added: “He embodies what we hope to accomplish with this coalition.”

The new coalition, the result of a two-year deliberative process involving about 20 scientific organizations, was launched 14 January 2009. It now has 26 member organizations, 15 affiliated organizations and 36 scientists affiliated as individual members. The coalition wants to spur communication and partnerships among scientific organizations and human rights groups, with the goal of expanding scientists’ contributions to human rights.

Mona Younis

Mona Younis

Elena Nightingale, scholar-in-residence at the Institute of Medicine and a former chair of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, said that “many of his [Claude's] ideas from 30 years ago have come to pass” in the new Science and Human Rights Coalition.

While scientists once became involved with human rights largely by writing letters on behalf of colleagues being harassed by repressive regimes, Claude encouraged them to use their expertise to promote the cause of human rights more generally around the globe. Skills in collecting and analyzing data, for example, can prove helpful in detailing rights abuses—such as deportations, ethnic cleansing, and systematic detention—that formerly might be revealed only through anecdotes.

Eric Stover, director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, said use of scientific techniques, such as forensic and genetic analysis in identifying victims of mass atrocities or use of epidemiology to track the social and medical consequences of land mines, has struck a chord with many scientists.

“Scientists, physicians and health professionals want to use their skills as opposed to simply writing letters to government authorities,” said Stover, who from 1980 to 1990 headed what was then called the AAAS Clearinghouse on Science and Human Rights. He applauded the new coalition’s multidisciplinary approach.

Allen Keller

Allen Keller

Allen Keller, associate professor of medicine at New York University and director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, said he learned from Claude the essential role science can play in documenting and disseminating details about human rights violations.

“It is Richard who has shined the light for all of us,” said Keller, who also learned from Claude that “if we don’t speak out” about human rights issues, “don’t presume that somebody else will.” Citing his own work with torture victims, Keller said that “as scientists, we need to very clearly and articulately debunk the myth that torture is effective.”

Richard Allen White, senior fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington and author of “Breaking Silence: The Case That Changed the Face of Human Rights,” told how Claude had encouraged him to write about a landmark case involving the death of a 17-year-old Paraguayan, Joelito Filártiga, who had been taken from his home by police, brutally tortured and murdered. The police officer responsible for Filártiga’s death eventually was arrested in Brooklyn, and a federal appeals court held that the man could be sued in the U.S. for violating international law (even though the case involved acts committed by one non-American against another non-American).

White said Claude’s house had become a sort of “human rights central,” where he and others could stay for weeks or even many months when they came back to the U.S. from the field. “I was there, on and off, for 4 years,” White said.

Claude, responding to those who came to celebrate his work, mentioned three themes from his own development that he said may have relevance for the coalition: political activism, multidisciplinary approaches to issues, and the importance of human rights education (including for scientists, technicians, and engineers).

His first venture into activism was in 1960 when he was arrested during a desegregation sit-in at a Tallahassee, Florida, lunch counter. “That really changed my life,” Claude said. “In many ways, it set my professional compass.” Later, as a graduate student at the University of Virginia, he helped desegregate several local movie theaters.

Leslie Harris

Leslie Harris

In a session on ethical dilemmas in science practice, Leslie Harris of the Center for Democracy and Technology noted that the Internet has “allowed people to organize for changes that would not be conceivable a mere 15 years ago.” But while technology has the potential to change the balance of power in repressive countries, she said, it is a double-edged sword. Cell phones and social networking services such as Twitter can rapidly spread information in a society, as happened did during recent protests in Iran. But such technology also can be used by governments to track citizens and their activities, Harris said. It is important for researchers to think about privacy and embed safeguards into the technologies they are creating, she said.

In another session, participants received an update on an initiative by some coalition members to highlight Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which requires states to recognize the right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. Article 15 also requires governments to recognize the benefits of international contacts and co-operation in science. One of the sessions discussed international standards and guidelines regarding a scientist’s right to travel as well as how attendees at scientific meetings can navigate the U.S. visa process.

Meeting attendees also heard a report on the deliberations of the Coalition Council—the coalition’s policy-setting body—which met for the first time on 23 July. The council agreed that member societies that wish to do so will be welcome to develop and sign public statements, but that these will not be a focus of the coalition’s work and will not be issued in the name of the coalition. Rather, the coalition is committed to “getting work done” through an active membership, Younis said.

“It may be difficult to come to one conclusion and one voice on every issue that we entertain,” said Paula Skedsvold, executive director of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences and a member of the coalition’s steering committee. “We will not be asking organizations to do anything that they don’t want to do.”

Douglas Richardson, chair of the steering committee and executive director of the Association of American Geographers, said that the challenge now is to turn all the organizational work into activities that “in the end, produce results and make a difference.”

agues to get involved if they find some basic human right is threatened. But he also cautioned them against proselytizing students. “Better to lead by example,” he said.

During the Coalition meeting, representatives of scientific organizations, scientists, lawyers, human rights advocates and others gathered in sessions and workshops to discuss technologies being used to promote human rights and some of the strategies for fostering more participation by scientists.