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Evaluating and Expanding the American Psychological Association’s Human Rights Engagement


Judith Torney-Purta, Professor Emerita, University of Maryland, representative to the Coalition for the American Educational Research Association



  • Presenters:
    • Kirby Huminuik, University of British Columbia (member of APA Human Rights Task Force)
    • Gabriel Twose, American Psychological Association, Office of International Affairs
  • Content of the Session:
    • A detailed Power Point summarized a draft report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Human Rights; members include social scientists as well as mental health and legal professionals.  The Task Force reviewed programs and surveys of division leaders, and conducted their own survey.
  • Summary of Report
    • The report, authorized in the APA Board of Directors, was intended to define human rights as related to psychology, review recent and ongoing APA’s human rights activities and suggest future initiatives. 
    • Topics included how to ensure the right to access to psychological knowledge, protect against discrimination, ensure the human rights of particular groups and identify needed social science research.
    • Implications were drawn for the science of psychology, for practitioners, and for education (e.g.., a blog on teaching human rights). Establishing a “culture of human rights” in the organization was discussed.  The APA’s Committee on International Relations in Psychology was involved in the process along with several APA divisions, which might organize relevant sessions at the APA’s annual convention.   
  • Findings
    • Overarching categories were proposed.
      • First, are proactive approaches (to prevent human rights violations).  Understanding how individuals develop positive attitudes toward the protection of human rights is one area for investigation by psychological researchers. 
      • Second, psychological research can also help identify responsive approaches that defuse situations when human rights are not respected. This involves helping psychologists become informed advocates for human rights. 
      • Third, psychologists can undertake reparative actions with victims.
    • Overarching connections between APA and the AAAS Coalition
      • First, psychologists possess human rights (e.g., academic freedom and freedom of association).
      • Second, it is possible to apply psychological knowledge to identify ways to enhance human rights.
      • Third, psychological theories and knowledge generated by psychological research are relevant to understanding human rights (e.g. theories of social attitude development and group identification, conflict resolution and peace building, and evidence-based approaches for treating victims). 
      • Fourth, psychologists could oppose the misuse of psychological science that negatively impacts human rights. Fifth, psychologists could ensure equal access to the benefits of psychological science and practice.
    • Knowledge generated by psychologists who work in a variety of international settings could highlight cultural perspectives on the topic.  Those with experience organizing communities or social movement activities related to human rights bring valuable perspectives.
  • Current activities of APA related to human rights
    • Disseminating and encouraging discussion of the report
    • Filing amicus briefs in situations such as the detention of immigrant children and families at the border
    • Reports on working with immigrant and refugee children
    • APA website resources
      • A document entitled Internationally Recognized Human Rights and Psychology: Annotated Bibliography (2000-2015) that was prepared by two AAAS Coalition Council members. 
  • Challenges
    • It was also noted that some members of APA are reluctant to have the organization speak out strongly on this issue fearing political ramifications.  Council Members representing some divisions are wary about the possible negative impact of APA taking positions on issues such as human rights (or see little relevance to their division’s interests). 
  • Audience and Response to Presentation
    • The session’s audience came from various perspectives – psychologists (early career to retired) as well as an immigration lawyer who deals daily with human rights issues and resulting trauma.  It was suggested that law schools pay more attention to the interface between psychology and human rights.  A center at the University of Minnesota was mentioned as a model. 
    • Responses from the audience suggested further research (collaborative between human rights specialists and psychologists) on topics such as the socialization of human rights attitudes/beliefs in differing cultural settings and designing effective programs for different groups (e.g. business leaders, social activists, teachers, the military).
    • The report was lauded, and also the depth and breadth of the process by which it was developed. Questions were asked about how APA is dealing with current issues – family separation at the border (which violates multiple developmental psychology principles) and lack of civility in public discourse.  Panel members responded with information about amicus briefs and publications on the former issue and noted APA’s sponsorship of a recent National Conversation on Civility with Jonathan Haidt. 
  • Next Steps
    • APA is represented on the Coalition Council as an entity, and one Division of APA (the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) also has a representative.  Another APA division could be represented -- the Society for Community Research and Action (formerly the division on community psychology). This could be valuable since several current actions of the Coalition focus on organizing communities.  
    • The Coalition could publicize actions taken by APA in reference to human rights.


Key Points/Takeaways:

  • The APA Task Force on Human Rights is in the final steps of finishing its work.
  • Report identifies how psychologists can contribute to supporting and upholding human rights through proactive, responsive and reparative actions.
  • A compendium of activities (spanning multiple Divisions of the APA and in various formats) related to human rights has been compiled online.
  • Next steps could involve greater representation on the Coalition Council, as well as support in disseminating human rights work being done by APA and psychologists.




  • American Psychological Association
  • Review of Member Activities
  • Actions in support of Human Rights
  • Online Resources


Additional Resources: