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AAAS Launches New Coalition Engaging Scientists in Human Rights

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Mary Robinson, former United Nations high commissioner for human rights and former
president of Ireland

Video by Ginger Pinholster

AAAS has launched a new coalition to foster communication and partnerships on human rights among scientific associations and between the scientific and human rights communities.

Learn more about the Science and Human Rights Coalition at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago on Saturday 14 February, from 1 to 4 p.m., in the Moulin Rouge Room of the Fairmont Hotel.If you’re interested in volunteering your science or engineering skills for human rights efforts, check out the AAAS On-Call Scientists program.

An initiative of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP), the Coalition was launched during a recent three-day conference. The Coalition is a formal network of scientific societies that will work together to see what can be accomplished when they combine their efforts to tackle human rights concerns. Through the Coalition, members will share their work on human rights, explore discipline-specific contributions, take human rights programs to interested scientific associations, and more.

The Coalition will also work to ensure that all people can share the benefits of innovation and technology at home and around the world, as required by the human right to the benefits of scientific progress (Article 15, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).


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Mona Younis

“We are committed to deepening and expanding scientific associations’ current work on human rights, moving into new areas of human rights work, and creating opportunities to identify yet other areas we cannot possibly imagine today,” said SHRP director Mona Younis. “Scientists and human rights practitioners are natural partners, and their connection works to each of their benefits.”

Younis added that rather than duplicating the efforts of scientific organizations already involved in human rights work, the Coalition will enable scientific societies to share what is working and identify what is still needed.

While human rights interventions by scientific organizations have typically involved letter-writing and other action taken on behalf of persecuted scientists, the Coalition will do that and more by expanding scientific associations’ understanding of human rights to enable them to contribute both their voices and their skills to human rights efforts.

For example, the Coalition might help a scientific society develop a committee devoted to connecting their members to human rights organizations in need of technical expertise. Or, they could encourage scientific societies to revise their codes of ethics to reflect human rights standards. Douglas Richardson, executive director of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) and member of the Science Ethics and Human Rights working group, said ethics codes can sometimes be “little more than pro forma, bureaucratic, and onerous checklists.” By incorporating human rights into professional societies’ ethical guidelines, he added, “we can further ensure that research is conducted responsibly.”


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Mary Robinson

During the opening plenary of the Coalition launch on 14 January, Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Ireland, said that collaboration among scientific disciplines and between the scientific and human rights community “meets the complex and important nature of securing human rights around the world.”

“A vehicle that will increase collaboration between the scientific and human rights communities, and bring human rights to scientists and the conduct of science, is particularly forward-looking,” she said.

Robinson applauded the Coalition’s decision to address the little-known human right to the benefits of scientific progress, while also reflecting on the vital role science plays in realizing many other human rights. “From ensuring access to clean water, to securing vital vaccines and medicines, to climate justice through adaptation and mitigation to a changing climate, science plays in integral role in protecting rights everywhere,” she said.


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Sidney Verba

Robinson spoke alongside Sidney Verba, current chair of the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies, and Raymond Pettit, representing Mercedes Doretti, co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, who read Doretti’s remarks.

The event, sponsored by AAAS with the financial support of the AAG, the American Psychological Association, and the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological and Cognitive Science, brought more than 150 participants from scientific associations, professional societies, and science academies, across disciplines and from around the world.

Younis said that the format and purpose of the Coalition evolved over the past year and a half. During this period, representatives of over 20 scientific societies and many individual scientists worked tirelessly to develop the Coalition’s structure and direction, as laid out in its foundational documents

Within the Coalition are five working groups, which will focus on specific areas of activity: Welfare of Scientists; Science Ethics and Human Rights; Service to the Scientific Community; Service to the Human Rights Community; and Education and Information Resources. In addition, the Coalition membership as a whole will work to promote the human right to the benefits of scientific progress.

The creation of this Coalition reflects AAAS’s long involvement in bringing science to human rights. With roots going back to 1977, SHRP’s initial forays into this field involved leading trained teams of scientists to investigate human rights abuses in Argentina (1984), Brazil (1990), Guatemala (1992), and Haiti (1995).

Since then, the scope and impact of SHRP’s work has expanded considerably. In 2005, for example, SHRP began to explore how high-resolution satellite imagery could be used to monitor and report abuses and violations involving displacement and physical destruction. While working with partners like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, SHRP has documented the destruction of villages, and mass movement of people in Ethiopia, Georgia, Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere.

In October 2008, SHRP launched “On-call” Scientists, an initiative connecting scientists and engineers interested in volunteering their skills, pro bono with human rights organizations in need of scientific expertise. While human rights organizations benefit from the time and expertise offered by the volunteers, scientists and engineers have an opportunity to see new and valuable uses for their knowledge and skills.

Noting the Association’s “long and proud history of working with scientists to advance human rights,” AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner said during opening remarks that the Coalition is a particularly “ambitious new endeavor.”

“I do hope we will end with a concrete plan to put this excellent idea into full service of human rights,” said Leshner, who also serves as the executive publisher of the journal Science.

The value, and the challenge, of human rights work was also addressed by Peter Agre. Agre, a Nobel Laureate, current AAAS president-elect, and director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, said that human rights efforts like these are tremendously important, but do not bring money or fame. “Human rights are not something someone pursues for income, but for something larger,” he said.

Agre said that the role of scientists in human rights issues, often working privately or behind-the-scenes, has produced positive outcomes “in extremely dire situations.”

Verba echoed those sentiments when he said that the use of science to investigate reports of violations is especially useful, “because science can often find objective expertise” and apply it to the frequently “murky details” of human rights abuses.

“Scientists can disagree, but there is no secrecy,” Verba said. “Using science for human rights is much better than using impressionistic or eyewitness accounts, which are frequently biased.”

In written remarks read by her colleague, Doretti reflected on the unique contribution that science and scientists can make to human rights. “Science can provide support, legitimacy, and credibility to the human rights movement,” she said, “to witnesses of atrocities, to survivors of massacres, and to local activist and lawyers, who, at great risk, believe and represent victims but seldom have physical evidence to solidly prove their case.”

It is such contributions that the Coalition aims to identify, develop, and foster. The starting point is learning more about what has been done so far. Launch participants had the opportunity to hear from representatives of some scientific associations that are already engaged in a variety of human rights activities. Gary Shapiro, of the American Statistical Association, spoke of his association’s human rights sessions at annual meetings and discipline’s contribution of rigorous statistical methods to analyze human rights data. Representatives of the AAG and the American Chemical Society spoke of their different contributions to human rights work.

Participants also heard from the human rights community about the scientific tools and methodologies that have served them in the area of environmental rights and forensic evidence of war crimes, and called for attention to the prevention of abuses of new technologies.

Coalition organizers recognize that, as a new initiative, a lot of ground work is still needed, including completing an inventory of the human rights work already going on within scientific associations, and identifying what can then be shared and built on. There is also a need for greater awareness about what “human rights” mean and how science and scientists can contribute. Perhaps most important is the planned work to identify what the scientific and human rights communities need to know about each other so they can work effectively.

Many new members were recruited during the launch and the list is continuing to grow. Membership of the Coalition is open to all scientific membership organizations. Individual scientists are also able to join as Affiliated Scientists.

The Coalition will hold its next meeting at AAAS Headquarters on 24 July. The purpose of this meeting is two-fold: to inform members of the progress made by Working Groups and decisions made by the Coalition Council (which is meeting the previous day), as well as to continue to raise awareness among members about the intersection between human rights and science through clinics, trainings, and workshops.

Benjamin Somers
12 February 2009