Helping Your Scientific Society Promote Human Rights
Since the 1970s in particular, scientific and professional societies have engaged in a number of different human rights activities:
- Acting to protect colleagues whose human rights are under threat;
- Issuing policy statements and position papers on timely human rights issues;
- Applying their tools and expertise to promote human rights;
- Providing discipline-specific volunteer services to human rights organizations;
- Awarding human rights prizes to noteworthy scientists;
- Upholding human rights in their mission statements;
- Researching human rights questions.
The following provides some examples of the current work of associations. Please consider contacting the associations listed for advice and suggestions:
A. Defending scientists’ human rights:
American Chemical Society (ACS): The ACS Committee on International Activities Subcommittee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights monitors the world for violations of the human rights of scientists.
American Mathematical Society (AMS): The American Mathematical Society’s Committee on the Human Rights of Mathematicians concentrates its activity on the rights of mathematicians living outside the United States. It investigates cases of rights abuse, makes polite inquiries of foreign governments and embassies, and, when appropriate, intervenes on behalf either of individuals or, occasionally, groups of individuals.
B. Adopting human rights policies or positions:
American Anthropological Association (AAA): The American Anthropological Association issued a Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights in which it affirmed “concern [...] whenever human difference is made the basis for the denial of basic human rights.”
American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA): The American Industrial Hygiene Association released a statement advocating the protection of human rights for all workers.
C. Promoting the application of scientific discipline to human rights questions:
Association of American Geographers (AAG): The Association of American Geographers (AAG) is broadly engaged in human rights through the Science and Human Rights Coalition; work on Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights; and the development of an AAG Geography and Human Rights Clearinghouse. The AAG also actively promotes human rights throughout the discipline of geography via featured speakers and sessions at its annual meetings, and through the activities of its Ethics, Justice, and Human Rights Specialty Group and its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Committee.
The AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and the Open Society Institute, is working to expand the applications of geospatial technologies to human rights issues through its Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project. Geospatial technologies include a range of modern tools, such as satellite images, geographic information systems (GIS), and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that allow for mapping and analysis of multiple layers of data related to physical location in space. For more details, see http://shr.aaas.org/geotech/. Also, examples of scientific associations’ completed past engagements on human rights can be found at http://shr.aaas.org/pastprojects.htm.
D. Setting up a volunteer program:
American Statistical Association (ASA): The ASA’s Volunteerism Special Interest Group (SIG) is an informal initiative that has been involved in human rights activities, including planning a survey of refugee camps for Darfurians and sampling of Guatemala police records archives. SIG also led to the formation of “Statisticians Without Borders,” a sub-group which seeks to provide pro bono statistical help, particularly in the field of international health.
Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG): SEG formed the Geophysicists Without Borders, a program that connects universities and industries with communities in need through applied geophysical projects that benefit people and the environment around the world.
E. Establishing a human rights award:
American Physical Society (APS): The American Physical Society is committed to the human rights of scientists. Through its Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, the APS monitors and advocates for the rights of scientists in the United States and around the globe. The Society also awards the Andrei Sakharov Prize to scientists who uphold these rights, and has acknowledged the rights of scientists through official APS statements.
American Psychiatric Association (APA): The [APA] Human Rights Award was established to recognize an individual and an organization whose efforts exemplify the capacity of human beings to act courageously and effectively to prevent human rights violations, to protect others from human rights violations and their psychiatric consequences, and to help victims recover from human rights abuses.
F. Pursuing human rights research:
American Political Science Association (APSA): The Section on Human Rights was established to encourage scholarship and facilitate exchange of data and research findings on all components of human rights (e.g., civil, political, economic, social, cultural, environmental), their relationship, determinants and consequences of human rights policies, structure and influence of human rights organizations, development, implementation, impact on international conventions, and changes in the international human rights regime.
- For science to progress, it is essential that claims to the truth be based on empirical testing and not on ideological or political authority. Scientific research depends at its core on the constant testing of ideas, theories, or dogmas. These two pillars of the everyday work of scientists can put them and their research at odds with autocratic and repressive governments and can make them targets in human rights atrocities.
- Efforts to promote and support human rights need science and the skills and expertise of scientists. Over the course of several decades, human rights practitioners have come to recognize the need for more and better tools and techniques to monitor human rights and document and report violations. Whether to strengthen traditional human rights work or tackle new capabilities, such as early-warning and prevention, science and technology have much to contribute to efforts to enhance human rights work.
- Human rights are the closest thing disparate human societies have to a unifying global set of values. The scientific endeavor is inherently international, requiring the sharing of knowledge and information, and collaboration across borders. Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, noted, “Human rights are the closest thing we have to a shared values system for the world. We should take every opportunity to see them not simply as shared goals, but as legal obligations and policy making tools [that] can assist those charged with making complex decisions–whether in the areas of trade, migration, the environment, security or public health.”
- Human rights will only be realized when scientists join other communities calling on their governments to meet their human rights obligations. Governments will take their human rights responsibilities seriously when they encounter demands to do so from their citizens. Scientists, as a highly respected segment of societies throughout the world, can help by bringing their respected voices to global demands that governments be held to account to their human rights duties.
See the last section of the booklet for a brief review of basic human rights definitions and historical background.
Robinson, Mary. “The value of a human rights perspective in health and foreign policy.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization [online]. 2007, v. 85, no. 3, pp. 241-242.
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(page updated 05/09/2013)