Advocating for prisoners of conscience; using satellite photos to help investigate war crimes; reuniting families of “disappeared” dissidents: It sounds like a list of extraordinary goals.
But for AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights & Law Program experts, it’s all part of the job. The program helped pioneer the use of research to document everything from the killings of political prisoners by military regimes in South America to the destruction of antiquities in the ongoing Syrian civil war. It’s brought hope to researchers jailed by dictatorial regimes and helped put some of those tormentors on trial.
Since its origins in the 1970s, when it concentrated on scientific freedom and responsibility, the program has evolved to meet the challenges posed by new technologies and the shifting tides of geopolitics. It’s harnessed those technologies to foster freedom and settle disputes. Mark Frankel has overseen much of that transition: He’ll mark 30 years as director of the program on July 31.
Q: How did AAAS get into the human rights field?
Mark Frankel: Its initial focus was primarily on scientists who found themselves in trouble for speaking out on various matters that were highly politicized. We basically established an activity that was intended to reach out to those scientists, to say they were not alone—they were part of a larger community who also had concerns about the way governments were using science and technology, or the way governments were treating their scientists. We would write letters to governments indicating that ‘We understand Professor So-and-So has been in prison on charges that have nothing to do with anything that would warrant a prison sentence, and imposes on his freedom of speech both as a citizen and as a scientist.’ Science thrives only when scientists can speak and write about their work and how it impinges on their society.
We also sent delegations over to various countries—initially, primarily, the Soviet Union, but also expanding to Africa, Asia and other regions as well—to try to get access to these scientists. If not those in prison, then at least those who were under house arrest … We also tried to meet with government officials overseas, to express our concerns about the importance of having a scientific community that was free to speak out to share information and to pursue lines of research that would serve society—and to decline to pursue lines of research that could only be used, perhaps, for reasons that would hurt society.
Q: There have been a lot of advances in technology since the Cold War era. How has the program changed with them?
Frankel: What we have tried to do is identify ways science and technology can actually promote human rights. For example, by helping to identify people, many of whom were killed and remained anonymous for decades. We’ve done this through forensic anthropology and genetics. We pioneered these approaches within the arena of human rights.
We ‘ve been involved in the past in developing software that would enable large amounts of data to be preserved and saved and searched. That might be used in instances where countries who became democratic decided to have some sort of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which many countries in Latin America have had and South Africa has had. They used our techniques to help them.
After that, we moved onto geospatial technology. We saw that as a mechanism that would enable us to see things—granted, from high, but in countries where people could not go about their way freely and borders were sealed.
What we have done is developed a relationship with the International Criminal Court whereby we provide them with imagery and analysis that will clearly demonstrate human rights abuses in a particular geographic area. Sometimes it involves cross-border abuses. We even had the director of the geospatial project go over to The Hague in early June to provide some testimony which included the geospatial imagery and her interpretation of it in a particular case that is just beginning to take shape. This was sort of where both the defense and the court had an opportunity to examine the evidence, sort of like a pre-trial hearing in the United States.
And we are part of a team with the Smithsonian and the University of Pennsylvania to document damages to cultural sites in Syria and Iraq particularly. By being able to do so, it provides documentation that can later be used perhaps in litigation, in efforts to reclaim and hold people accountable. That is clearly an area where we have picked up in the last couple of years and applied our expertise to that particular area. And at some point we all hope the violence will die down and people will be able to access those areas and begin healing in some fashion and holding people accountable.
Q: How does AAAS pick where it engages on these questions?
Frankel: There are a number of criteria I would use. Assuming it’s consistent with our mission, No. 1 is, can we make a difference? Do we have the expertise? Are the images available? … Do we want to want to work with the group that’s come to us for assistance? Are they credible? Do we know enough about them? All of these efforts involve resources, and clearly we can’t take everything that comes to us.
Q: This month, the program is having a conference on climate change and human rights. What’s the human rights dimension to the issue, and how is AAAS addressing it?
Frankel: The human rights issues arise in the context of efforts to harass scientists for private emails and raw data. The harassment is coming through Freedom of Information Act requests at both the state level and the federal level, and from Congress, which has subpoenaed a number of climate scientists in the U.S., asking them to provide basically everything they’ve ever written, said or heard relating to their work. We’ve been concerned about this action on the part of Congress and others, and we’ve issued statements on that.
Another human right is the ability for the public and policymakers in part to have access to the best evidence available. We want to make sure scientists are not discouraged from doing research in this area, and they are not harassed to the point where they decide not to do any more research in this area. It’s not just a matter of the scientist being harassed, but of society’s access to data and information.
It’s a human right to have a safe and healthy environment. That’s recognized internationally. And given what we believe is happening based on the evidence, that’s going to be problematic as time moves on unless we take certain actions.
Q: What got you interested in the human rights dimensions of science?
Frankel: The short answer is that I applied to be director of the program in 1986 because of its focus on ethics. I was an AAAS member for many years before joining the staff, and was a great admirer of the association’s human rights work, but that was from a distance. It was only after I arrived that I became more than a bystander and saw how ethics and human rights were intimately connected. At that point, I embraced the human rights role for AAAS unreservedly, and in recent years have explored ways that the program could pursue projects and activities that encompassed both ethics and human rights.
Q: AAAS has been in this arena since the 1970s. What do you think has been its biggest win? Where has progress been slower to achieve?
Frankel: What we did in Latin America with genetics and forensic anthropology probably affected people’s lives more than anything else. We helped develop a genetic paternity test that would allow in various countries, young children who lost their parents—because their parents disappeared—to link them up with their legitimate grandparents. In many cases, these children were very young and they were adopted by people who were sympathetic to the government, many of them in the military. They grew up thinking those were there parents, and the grandparents were not happy with that, of course, and protested. As a result of this advance in genetics, we were able to provide evidence to the democratic regime when it took over, that this child is the grandson of this woman or man.
We did a lot of work that allowed families to reunite, and that was not both personally rewarding and moving but also was an important example of how science can be used to further human rights and be used as evidence. When they dug up mass graves of people, through various DNA and anthropological methods, we were able to identify many of these people and to see how they were killed—such as with their hands tied behind their back, with a bullet through their heads. That is evidence that courts used in various countries … and those have had major impacts on the lives of people in those countries, because eventually, there was some sort of accountability. Leaders were tried for what they did as a repressive government and for what they did to their people.
Since the beginning of our work, we’ve had a number of scientists and engineers who are persecuted by governments, thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. We’ve had a number of successes in the past, and we’ve also had some failures, where people have ended up dying in prison. We couldn’t do enough to get them free, or at least get them health care. There is a Ph.D. student from the University of Texas who’s Iranian, and he went back to Iran to see his family and was arrested immediately on some trumped-up charges. He’s been in prison now for a few years. We gave him our Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award for his refusal to work on activities to help their nuclear program. He’s a physicist, and his health has deteriorated considerably. He’s got kidney disease. He’s got all sort of problems though malnutrition.
He’s one of a number over time where despite our efforts, and those of our government and of scientists around the world, we haven’t been successful in getting them either released or getting them medical attention or access to family. That’s been the area where I think we’ve been disappointed the most.