As a young boy in Liberia, Alfred Brownell was not yet able to read when his science teacher distributed a fill-in-the-blank test. The teacher eventually read the question to Brownell who interpreted the correct answer to be “blank” and “blank.” He asked a friend how to spell “blank,” setting off a barrage of laughter from his classmates.
“I was so embarrassed that I wanted the Earth to open up and devour me,” Brownell said. It took no time before he became the target of bullying that was so relentless, he stopped going to school. Months would pass before he decided to return and “face my shame head on.” He dug into his studies and quickly became the top student in his class.
Brownell, now a recognized human rights advocate and environmental lawyer, shared his early encounter with Liberia’s educational system in the keynote address at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s opening day of the AAAS Science, Technology and Human Rights Conference.
As the founder of Green Advocates, Liberia’s first environmental, human rights and public interest law firm, Brownell has helped preserve local land rights, halt environmental destruction of indigenous communities throughout Liberia’s West African forests and reverse pollution of natural and water resources from the destructive cultivation of rubber trees and palm oil plantations.
The address was among 25 presentations, many of which featured the beneficial consequences of partnerships between human rights representatives and scientific communities within scientific societies, private industry, government, academia -- including graduate and post-graduate science students -- and international organizations.
The three-day conference, beginning on Oct. 23, marked the 10th anniversary of the founding of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, which now includes 24 scientific membership organizations, and two affiliated organizations. Jessica M. Wyndham, AAAS director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program and AAAS coordinator of the Science and Human Rights Coalition, said such collaborations have demonstrated the “multiple ways in which science and human rights intersect.”
Such links were explored through a range of topics, including concerns within the scientific community about limits to academic freedom that have, at times, forced scientists, engineers and health professionals into exile, as well as discussions outlining how scientists can advance the scientific enterprise globally through interactions with the United Nations and other international groups.
Indeed, AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program has played an active role working with the U.N. to implement the global right to science, which AAAS continues to pursue.
The coalition represents a network of scientific associations and professional societies that recognize the vital role science and scientists can play in contributing to the realization of human rights. The conference was intended not just to showcase its first decade of impact but also to explore future opportunities for scientists, engineers and health professionals to contribute to promoting and protecting human rights.
Other sessions focused on how science can inform timely human rights issues, including preventing harm to migrant children being held in detention centers, halting illegal land grabs, particularly those in indigenous communities, and fighting human trafficking with the help of statistics.
Conference sessions also highlighted the growing role of artificial intelligence as a tool for both advancing scientific research and documentation, as well as raising ethical and legal concerns about potential negative impacts of the technology on human rights such as privacy and freedom.
“Both science and human rights have been strengthened by the effective collaboration across the two communities,” said Wyndham of the first decade of the coalition’s work. “We must now look to institutionalize the practice of collaborating across the science and human rights.”
Wyndham underscored implementation guidelines being drafted by the U.N. Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, asserting that they should encompass non-material as well as the material benefits of scientific progress as part of the right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.”
Brownell’s talk outlined such applications. In 2010, he devoted significant effort to stopping an industrial-scale subsidiary of a Singapore-based palm oil producer, one of the world’s largest, from clear-cutting 513,500 acres of Liberia’s tropical forests to develop palm oil plantations. The targeted forests are home to indigenous communities and among the globe’s most biodiverse areas, full of endangered species, including the pygmy hippopotamus and a population of elephants.
To halt such environmental destruction, Brownell reached out for scientific expertise. Scientists measured and assessed the impact of the development on water quality levels, the toxicity of industrial wastewater discharges and the overall effects of deforestation on natural environments and its inhabitants, collecting evidence that bolstered legal cases seeking redress.
Brownell’s legal accomplishment drew personal threats that eventually led he and his family to the U.S. where he serves as a distinguished scholar in residence at Northeastern University’s School of Law in Boston.
On April 22, in honor of Earth Day, the Goldman Environmental Prize announced it was presenting Brownell and four others its 2019 prize in recognition of their “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.” The winners were selected by an international panel and lauded for “local efforts, where positive change is created through community or citizen participation in the issues that affect them,” stated the Goldman Environmental Prize.
“While science and technology can be used to either promote or undermine human rights and the environment, science and technology, no doubt, can serve as a vital tool for human rights in a partnership for justice for the planet and its people,” said Brownell.
In opening the conference, Wyndham quoted remarks of Mary Robinson, former U.N. high commissioner for human rights and former president of Ireland, that she made at the launch of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition 10 years ago.
“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,” said Robinson. “It is no exaggeration to say that everyone stands to benefit from such a project.”
[Associate image: Goldman Environmental Prize]