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Human Rights Day Highlights Scientific Contributions to Prevent Cultural Heritage Destruction, Trafficking

"Ancient History/Modern Destruction" highlights cutting-edge scientific methods, new technologies, and current research projects that are underway to document, investigate, and ultimately understand cultural heritage destruction. | Carla Schaffer/AAAS

International Human Rights Day marks the 10 December 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly of. This year, it coincided this year with the opening of a new exhibit that depicts how scientific technologies are used to document and understand the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites in conflict zones—an established violation of human rights.

Ancient History/Modern Destruction officially opened at the AAAS art gallery on 10 December with a panel of experts, who discussed cultural heritage destruction, the efforts now underway to understand and prevent such destruction, and what else museums and scientific institutions can do to protect cultural heritage.

The exhibit is a partnership between AAAS, the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Brian I. Daniels, director of research and programs of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, moderated the panel, which included Susan Wolfinbarger, director of the Geospatial Technologies Project at AAAS; Salam Al Kuntar, research fellow at the Penn Museum; Corine Wegener, cultural heritage preservation officer at the Smithsonian Institution; and Julian Raby, Dame Jillian Sackler director at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art. 


Panelists Salam Al Kuntar, Corine Wegener, and Julian Raby | AAAS

The panel was also joined by a host of additional speakers from the exhibit partners: from the Smithsonian Institution, Richard Kurin, the acting provost and under secretary for museums and research; from the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, Richard Leventhal, the center's executive director; and from AAAS, Rush Holt, the CEO and executive publisher of Science, and Jessica Wyndham, associate director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program. 

While cultural heritage destruction is a global issue, the panelists focused on the role of cultural heritage destruction in the humanitarian crisis in Syria—which has left more than a quarter-million dead and millions displaced, Daniels said. 

AAAS’ Geospatial Technologies Project, which applies geographic technologies to improve research and documentation in service of human rights and humanitarian issues, has analyzed high-resolution satellite images to document the targeted destruction of Syrian and Iraqi cultural heritage sites. Panelists emphasized the importance of documenting the destruction of cultural heritage in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.

“Real-time reports of what's happening is vital” to give a sense of the “wanton destruction” in Syria, Kurin said.

Panelists cited efforts currently underway to understand and lessen the impacts of cultural heritage destruction, particularly by working with Syrian partners.

Leventhal said that Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria Initiative is providing training for local partners on the ground to protect Syrian cultural heritage, while Raby cited another project that emphasizes local participation in the fight against cultural heritage destruction. Project Mosul is a crowd-sourced effort to digitally recreate cultural artifacts that have been destroyed. This “process of involvement” is important, Raby said, giving groups whose cultural heritage is under threat an even stronger stake in protecting it.

Panelists noted the connection between cultural heritage and identity, with Wegener citing growing recognition of a stronger “cross-disciplinary view of cultural heritage,” which recognizes that humanitarian response is an essential part of disaster response.

“There seems to be, slowly but surely, the idea that cultural heritage can’t be separated from the people that make it important, that identify with it, that want to preserve it,” Wegener said.

Panelists agreed that scientific and cultural institutions can do more to better understand cultural heritage destruction and prevent further harm. Scientists should think about how their specialties might be applied in service of human rights, Wolfinbarger said, and applied to the greater good.

In October, experts convened on Capitol Hill to call for restrictions on the import of illicit Syrian artifacts in an effort to protect cultural heritage artifacts and to undercut the looting and trafficking that earns the Islamic State group up to $100 million annually. The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act passed the House of Representatives in June but is still with the Senate.

Ancient History/Modern Destruction is open to the public at the AAAS art gallery through February 2016.

Documentary Grapples With Issues of Using DNA to Reunite Migrant Children With Families

Also at the intersection of science and human rights was the 8 December screening and discussion of the documentary film The Living Disappeared: Using DNA to Prevent Trafficking of Children on the Border. The film features interviews with policymakers and scientists who use DNA testing to reunite migrant children with families, as well as firsthand accounts of immigrants who crossed into the United States from Latin American countries as children. 

Filmmaker Alexa Barrett was joined in advance of Human Rights Day by Sara H. Katsanis of Duke University and Thomas Parsons of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) for a conversation on her film and the scientific and ethical issues it raises, moderated by AAAS' Jessica Wyndham. 

The event was co-hosted by the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program and the Duke University Initiative for Science and Society. It was funded by the Kenan Collaboratory Fund through the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and partially sponsored by LabCorp.


Sara H. Katsanis, Alexa Barrett, and Thomas Parsons | AAAS

The film, Barrett said, “creates a dialogue among policymakers, people on the ground working with migrants, academics, and, most importantly, the migrants themselves.”

More than 5,000 unaccompanied children crossed from Mexico into the United States in November 2015 alone, about twice as many who crossed in November 2014, Barrett said.

Many unaccompanied children crossing the border are migrants sent voluntarily by their parents to escape violence in their home countries, but are at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking, Katsanis said, whether en route, when placed with sponsors in the U.S. as they await their hearings, or when deported back to their countries of origin.

Although the technical mechanisms for capturing and storing DNA are available, and applied routinely in missing persons and unidentified remains cases, the panel agreed that a primary problem is posed by the lack of international mechanisms for sharing personal and genetic data across borders. Panelists noted that establishing a centralized cross-border database (or network of databases) to use DNA for migrant children poses issues of ownership, consent, and privacy that have yet to be addressed amongst the many authorities and stakeholders (including families and larger civil society).

The panelists also noted that minor children cannot give traditional informed consent for DNA collection and that DNA results only take into account genetic ties while ignoring significant non-blood relations. While policy and cross-border coordination remain challenging, the panelists noted that increased dialogue and cooperation to strengthen human rights and humanitarian efforts holds great promise for enhancing effective and ethically sound mechanisms for accounting for the missing.

Next steps for exploring who would manage a DNA database and what kinds of laws must be in place to protect information for humanitarian purposes could include governments “developing policies for safeguarding that information,” Barrett said.


Andrea Korte