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S&T Associations Showing "Extraordinary" Support for AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, launched in January, has been attracting new members and affiliates as it prepares for its second meeting on 23-24 July at the AAAS headquarters, according to Mona Younis, the coalition coordinator and director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program.

Learn more about the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.

The network now includes 26 science organizations as members and 15 as affiliates—those that are exploring the relevance of human rights activities for their disciplines but have not yet joined as full-fledged members.

"It's quite extraordinary," Younis said during a 24 June webinar on efforts to bring the tools and methods of science to the global pursuit of human rights. "We're just delighted by the rapidity with which scientific groups and individual scientists have been responding to the new Coalition," Younis said.

The second meeting of the Coalition will open on the evening of Thursday 23 July with a special event to honor Richard Pierre Claude, author of Science in the Service of Human Rights, emeritus professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, and a pioneer in the field of science and human rights. Through his mentoring and scholarship, Claude has inspired many scientists to take up important work on human rights.

The meeting will continue the next day with presentations, workshops, and working meetings on human rights issues central to the mission of the Coalition. Sessions will include "Human Rights 101 for Scientists," "Ethical Dilemmas in Science Practice," "Human Rights and the Mobility of Scientists," and "Getting Your Association Involved."

Scientific groups traditionally have spoken up when the rights of individual scientists are threatened, but the Coalition seeks a broader interaction among scientists and human rights advocates. The aim is to provide scientists a better understanding of human rights issues—including the right of all people to share the benefits of scientific progress and its applications—while helping human rights advocates better understand the tools, expertise and other resources that science can offer for monitoring human rights abuses and realizing human rights.

Younis said she is gratified by the response to the "On-call" Scientists program, another recent AAAS initiative. More than 250 scientists have volunteered to provide expertise to human rights organizations, Younis said, and several projects already are underway.

One economist is doing a cost-benefit analysis on the right to health care in Montana for the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, and another is determining, for the RFK Memorial Center, whether appropriations are sufficient to meet the cost of rebuilding public infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Katrina. In addition, engineers, geologists and chemists have responded to a request for volunteers to assess the effects of extractive industries on surrounding communities in several African nations. A plant geneticist will soon be helping to assess the impact of genetically modified crops on native maize varieties in Colombia.

The AAAS Science and Human Rights Program has been promoting use of science-based solutions to human rights problems since its founding in 1977. These include the use of forensic and genetic sciences to identify victims of mass atrocities, electronic encryption technologies to protect human rights communication, and analysis of satellite imagery to document human rights violations.

"There is a wealth of specialized knowledge that the scientific community can contribute to monitoring, documenting, reporting and litigating human rights" violations, Younis said. She added: "At no previous time have both the need and the possibilities been as great as they are today."

AAAS President Peter Agre, who moderated the webinar, said the hope is that "one day scientists can help make early warning and prevention of human rights atrocities possible."

Already there is some progress toward that goal. Ariela Blätter, senior director for international programs at Amnesty International USA, described her group's "Eyes on Darfur" project, undertaken in 2007 with technical assistance from the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project. High-resolution commercial satellite images of the Darfur region of Sudan, analyzed by AAAS researchers, are posted to Amnesty International's "Eyes on Darfur" Web site. Computer users around the globe can visually track the status of a dozen settlements Amnesty International considers possible targets of attack.

"We empower the users to watch over the villages," Blätter said. "We're shining a light in an area of darkness." Using archival satellite images, the project also provided before- and-after evidence of villages that already had been destroyed or heavily damaged by pro-government Arab militias.

Lars Bromley, the director of the AAAS geospatial project, said satellite imagery can provide human rights groups access to places they cannot reach on the ground and is particularly useful for analyzing impacts in large geographical areas that are not well mapped. In addition to Darfur, Bromley's project also has analyzed satellites images of Zimbabwe, Burma, and South Ossetia, among others, for evidence of human rights violations.

Bromley has been exploring the use of other imagery tools, including sensors that can pick up use of fire in conflicts and multi-spectral image analysis to monitor the loss of vegetation in a region (such as defoliation in Ecuador as a result of anti-narcotics activities in neighboring Colombia).

Beyond imaging technologies, the AAAS Science and Human Right Program has begun researching the potential human rights applications of other technologies, including use of wireless technologies to facilitate human rights organizing, documenting, and monitoring; network mapping to help human rights practitioners better plan interventions in the structures, institutions, or systems that are responsible for human rights violations; and budget analysis to determine whether a government is allocating the resources required to meet its human rights obligations in areas such as access to justice, education and health.