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AAAS Workshop Trains Researchers to Promote Science as a Human Right

As researchers and policymakers convened at AAAS for a workshop on science and human rights, few of the attendees knew that the right to the benefits of scientific advancement is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, by the end of the program, participants felt committed to making human rights part of their professional lives.

The workshops took place on Human Rights Day, the 10 December celebration to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

AAAS staff and scientists from diverse agencies and organizations in Washington, D.C., including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the Geological Society of America, and the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, participated in the training.

They discussed the intersection of science and human rights as well as how to support human rights in their work. These subjects have long been of concern for AAAS, which began focusing on science and human rights in 1977, explained Jessica Wyndham, senior project director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program.

Human rights are “fundamental entitlements that are guaranteed by law,” Wyndham said. “They cover everyone, they’re freedoms of all human beings, not just those human beings who live in the West or live in the East or anywhere else, and they’re derived from the mere fact of being human.”

Governments have the responsibility to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights, Wyndham continued, though “governments will only ensure their obligations are met to the extent that we demand that they do so.”

Jessica Wyndham

Workshop participants looked through their copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first comprehensive international statement of human rights, to find rights related to scientific freedom. While Article 27 of the Declaration enshrines the right of all people to “share in scientific advancement and its benefits,” other parts of the declaration also support that right. Article 26 protects the right to education, Article 23 protects the right to work, and Article 18 protects freedom of thought.

The right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits is “not a right with which most people are very familiar but all [human] rights are interdependent and linked,” Wyndham said.

After splitting up into small groups to talk about the connections between science and human rights, participants in one of the workshops identified issues including access to technology and the ability to participate in clinical drug trials. Interestingly, as Wyndham pointed out, no one brought up the human rights of scientists, which was one of the original goals of the AAAS Science and Human Rights program.

AAAS started working in human rights in 1977 under the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program, to use scientific tools and techniques for human rights purposes and to provide direct support to human rights groups, Wyndham said.

In the 1980s and 1990s, AAAS worked with forensic anthropologists in Guatemala and Argentina to exhume mass graves of those who were killed in civil wars or civil disturbances. AAAS also worked with statisticians on a report that identified a link between the displacement of communities in Kosovo and Yugoslavian government policy. The report was later presented as evidence against former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic at the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

In 2007, the Science and Human Rights Program was redesigned to build on the strengths of AAAS as its institutional home, continue its successes in applying scientific techniques in to human rights problems, and to be more responsive to the needs of the human rights community. Since then, the program has focused on three areas: Engaging scientists in human rights, using science to support human rights, and science as a human right. In the future, the program would also like to study human rights and the conduct of science.

Wyndham encouraged workshop participants to join the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, a network of scientific membership organizations launched in January 2009 to facilitate communication and cooperation on human rights within the science community and between the science community and human rights organizations. She also encouraged participants to become an “On-call Scientist” (a AAAS program in which scientists volunteer their expertise to human rights organizations), and to create opportunities for addressing human rights within their professional associations.

“You can provide advice to the government on how it can better implement its human rights obligations. You can applaud the government, you can shame the government,” Wyndham said. “Generally, in the work that we do, we consider that providing positive examples of ways in which human rights have been implemented… is more likely to be effective than shaming, though we do some of that too in our work.”

The workshop participants broke up into small groups to talk about specific ways in which they can address human rights. Ideas included becoming involved with UNESCO, the UN’s science and education organization, and studying the relationships between poverty, climate change, and natural disasters.

“I want to produce radio and podcast stories that explore how science can impact human rights work,” Susanne Bard, producer for Science Update said after the training. “So far, I’ve focused on the satellite imagery work for Burma and Congo, but I’d like to expand to other projects and I’m always looking for ideas to report on.”

Victor Udoewa, an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow and USAID development engineer, said that he isn’t sure how he will bring human rights into his work, though he previously organized a workshop on post-disaster reconstruction and invited a speaker with relevant human rights expertise.

Erika Lamb, an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow working on radiation and nuclear measures at NIH, participated in the workshop “to learn more about how to involve myself in human rights, rather than just talking about its importance,” she said. “I don’t have any good ideas about how to incorporate the training into my current job, but I am determined to volunteer in this area and hope to be able to do more as I move along my career path.”

Learn more about the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program.

Learn more about the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.

Read the AAAS Board of Directors’ full statement on the human right to the benefit of scientific progress.