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Science and Human Rights Coalition Shows Early Successes, Impact

A pioneering AAAS coalition bridging science and human rights marked its first anniversary with meetings that brought together more than 100 attendees from scientific organizations to explore how science, scientists and scientific associations can serve society by addressing human rights.

Since its launch just over a year ago, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition has grown quickly, with 45 current member or affiliated scientific organizations and 50 individual scientist members. In addition, the Coalition’s working groups have begun to produce results, including a starter kit for scientific groups committed to exploring how to bring human rights issues to their organization, as well as an online bibliography of published materials on science and human rights, including science curricula.

Jessica Wyndham

“Combining the strengths of the science and human rights communities is of benefit to both,” said Jessica Wyndham, project director in the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. “Scientists can bring technical knowledge and their voices to human rights problems, while human rights organizations can help scientists realize and broaden the potential impacts of their research.”

Officially launched in January 2009, the Coalition seeks to foster communication and partnerships on human rights among scientific associations and between the scientific and human rights communities. Through the group, members can share their work on human rights, explore discipline-specific contributions, work with scientific associations interested in developing human rights programs, and more.

The Coalition held its most recent bi-annual meeting on 22 January to address ethical dilemmas surrounding scientific research and the military; to hear from survivors of human rights violations; and continue exploration of the little-known right to the benefits of scientific progress.

In addition, meeting attendees heard from a panel of scientific societies that have developed specific programs aimed at linking volunteer scientists with human rights and development organization on the ground.


Productive partners. Villagers in India’s Madhya Pradesh measure stream flow in a local project with Geoscientists Without Borders. [Photo Credit: Daniel Matz]

Such programs allowing science to serve society. In February 2009, for example, Geoscientists Without Borders, along with a partnership of non-profit and academic institutions, sent a team of geophysicists to the remote southwestern coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, to assist communities in developing their first tsunami evacuation plans.


Following the devastating 9.1 magnitude earthquake in December 2004, new stresses were placed on the southern part of the regional fault system, putting residents of West Sumatra at an increased risk of a further earthquake„with the potential for a subsequent tidal serge on the scale of the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 300,000 people in 2004.

Describing the year-long project at the recent meeting of the Science and Human Rights Coalition, Rhonda Jacobs, program manager for Geologists Without Borders, said that the geophysicists used tsunami and earthquake rupture modeling to help design vertical evacuation buildings “that would allow residents to climb above the tsunami, as opposed to out running it by moving inland.”

Jacobs said that the project is an example of how Geoscientists Without Borders, developed by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, seeks to connect universities and industries with communities in need, and promote the use of applied geophysics for the benefit of society and the environment.

“As scientists, we have a love for finding answers and strive during our careers to use our research for beneficial activities,” said Alexander Mihai Popovici, current committee chair of Geoscientists Without Borders, in remarks following the meeting. “It is great to see both these passions come together, bringing basic human rights and the benefits of science to people who need it.”

During the Coalition meeting’s opening session, a panel explored the human rights and ethical implications arising from the conduct of science for military purposes or supported by military funding.

While science and the military have a long history of collaboration„from the development of penicillin to treat wounds to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb, Hugh Gusterson, professor of anthropology at George Mason University, said that scientists working with the military should be aware that some activities could violate their disciplines’ professional code of ethics.

For example, Gusterson said that the American Anthropological Association requires its members to “do no harm.” While this could restrict anthropologists from some activities with the armed forces, for example participating in programs such as the Human Terrain System in Afghanistan, he said “they can play a role in certain military situations.”

Leonard Rubenstein, visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that “human rights ideas do not prevent a nation from using military means to defend itself,” adding that “the Geneva Conventions do not outlaw war, but rather lay out the regulation for its conduct.”

“Scientists can promote human rights not only by improving the quality of life around the world through their applied research, but also by assuring that weapons developed are consistent with principles such as distinguishing civilians from combatants and do not interfere with people’s perceptions, affect, or memory,” said Rubenstein.

Wyndham said that discussions exploring the relationship between science and the military are important because it shows the potential impacts of research outside the laboratory.

“Among the main goals of the Coalition is to show scientists that their work doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “Science can be a tremendously powerful tool, especially for an organization that is looking to investigate human rights violations at home and around the world or document and explain their results to the public.”

The other side of this coin is the importance of protecting the human rights of scientists. The Coalition’s Working Group on the Welfare of Scientists is dedicated to that purpose and held a training session the day before the full Coalition met, focusing on best practices for defending scientists against human rights violations. Teaming with Scholars at Risk, an international network of higher education institutions, the working group offered a primer in international and regional human rights laws pertaining to scientists, while teaching participants practical strategies for assisting assist colleagues at risk.

During the Coalition meeting, Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian scholar, described his efforts to bring reform to the Arab world and his participation in “Damascus Spring,” a period of national political discussions and calls for reform that followed the death of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 2000.

After participating in human rights movements and publishing a series of books on human rights in the Arab world, Ziadeh left Syria for the United States following threats of persecution, long interrogations, imprisonment of his colleagues, and an eventual order for his arrest.

Assisted by Scholars at Risk, Ziadeh is now a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, where he is examining democracy promotion in an effort to “develop an effective model for democratization in the Middle East.”

In addition to providing a forum for scientific associations to share experiences in addressing human rights and to raise important issues at the nexus of human rights and scientific research, Wyndham explained the Coalition’s focus on Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which guarantees access to the benefits of science.

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, ICESCR Article 15 says that, just as governments are expected to adopt measures to respect the rights to freedom of expression and a fair trial, so too are they obligated to uphold the right to the benefits of scientific progress. Through the Coalition’s joint initiative focused on Article 15, scientists will be contributing to the elucidation of the meaning of this right, as well as efforts to promote, monitor and encourage implementation of the right. As part of this initiative, for example, one Coalition working group plans to develop a set of indicators to measure the degree to which governments are abiding by Article 15.

Wyndham also manages the AAAS “On-call” Scientists program, which pairs scientists and engineers interested in volunteering their skills with human rights organizations in need of scientific expertise. “On-call” Scientists has attracted more than 400 scientists and engineers interested in offering their time and expertise on a pro bono basis.

Active collaborations under the “On-call” Scientists program include psychologists and psychiatrists assessing evidence of torture; geologists investigating the effects of oil extraction in the Congo and gold mining in Guinea; a statistician advising on effective questionnaire-based research methods aimed at documenting discrimination against HIV/AIDS carriers; a psychologist helping to evaluate psychological impacts of child labor in artisanal diamond mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo; and an economist studying the price of rebuilding infrastructure in U.S. areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

“Scientists can contribute to human rights work in innumerable ways,” Wyndham said, “We have seen the impact of their contributions so far, and we are committed to exploring new and effective ways to bring the voices, the experience, and the knowledge of scientists to human rights work.”


Learn more about the AAAS-led Science and Human Rights Coalition.