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Evidence-Based Research Contributes to Human Rights Work

Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting
From left, moderator Louisa Greve, Ann Marie Clark, and Paul Gorski discuss evidence-based human rights movements at the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

The application of scientific methods, research, and evidence to the documentation of human rights efforts are contributing to those movements, according to speakers at the 4-5 April meeting of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting.

The meeting, dedicated to “A Scientific Approach to Human Rights,” brought together Margaret Satterthwaite of the New York University School of Law, Ann Marie Clark of Purdue University, and Paul Gorski of George Mason University for a plenary panel on evidence-based human rights movements, moderated by Louisa Greve of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition was founded in January 2009 to bring together scientific and engineering membership organizations that recognize a role for scientists and engineers in human rights. The Coalition includes 23 organizations as members, along with one affiliated organization.

The Coalition’s meetings serve “to connect the science and human rights communities, to build networks, to engage scientists and engineers in doing human rights work, and to promote awareness about the intersections of science, engineering, health, and human rights,” said Jessica Wyndham, associate director of AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program, in her plenary introduction.

Human rights fact-finding has become increasingly evidence-based, according to Satterthwaite, who contributed to the panel via Skype. In comparing research reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch from 2000 and 2010, she found that the 2010 reports relied more explicitly on field research and included more types of primary and secondary data and more methods of data collection.

Additionally, the proportion of reports that used primary interviews increased between 2000 and 2010, as did the number of reports that included a discussion of methodology used or a formal methodology section, Satterthwaite said.

Satterthwaite also noted a small increase in reports that identified the limits or uncertainties of the research – which almost none of the reports from 2000 included.

Human rights research and advocacy is “ready to embrace some new methods and some new forms of secondary data,” Satterthwaite said.

“It’s an important question to engage in: How far can this interdisciplinarity go?” she said. “Does it mean that we need to have new training for human rights advocates? It certainly would mean that additional collaboration – and a lot more space for collaborative research – is needed.”

Ann Marie Clark, a professor of political science, also worked with written records from human rights groups, analyzing Amnesty International USA’s Urgent Action Bulletins as well as fostering further work through a collaboration between researchers, nongovernmental groups like AI, and research librarians to preserve the complete set of bulletins from 1975 to 2007.

Researchers can learn from the records of human rights work, Clark said. She is currently studying changes in rhetorical resources used by those making appeals as evidence to whether “the global culture and recognition of human rights has changed,” she said.

The bulletins were sent to national AI branches for distribution to members who would write appeals to governments on behalf of human rights defenders, and many of them exist only on paper and microform. But Clark’s team collaborated with Purdue libraries on a digitization project, and the e-archive, which is being coded to make records searchable, is expected to be ready next year, Clark said.

The collaboration was a natural one, according to Clark. While human rights defenders are often more focused on immediate, urgent human rights work than maintaining archives of their work, librarians bring this archival expertise – as well as a strong service component and a commitment to information-sharing, Clark said.

Researchers can also support human rights activists through research on the causes and effects on vocational “burnout” that affect their ability to carry out their work, said Paul Gorski, who is working on several projects to better understand and improve conditions for human rights activists.

Gorski shared results from a series of studies about the unique variety of burnout suffered by activists, which manifests through physical health effects, emotional and mental health effects, and a loss of hope, he said. Through mapping of symptoms, causes, and consequences of activist burnout, Gorski and his fellow researchers have identified three major causes for burnout among activists that differentiate it from other manifestations of vocational burnout.

First, activists are affected by a high degree of emotional involvement with their work. Second, they face external resistance or threats preventing them from accomplishing their work, ranging from the frustrating, such as funding challenges, to the truly dangerous like violence or incarceration. Finally, activists are affected by discrimination, especially sexual harassment and assault, within their movements, which Gorski said is the most significant and least-studied factor causing activist burnout.

Gorski and his colleagues are also working to create a unique scale to measure burnout and to identify, develop, and make accessible tools – such as mindfulness practices and mentoring – to strengthen activist persistence and consequently strengthen human rights movements.

“We need more research overall on activist burnout and persistence, especially related to the impact of movement dynamics” within activist circles, he said.