Monday, March 2, 2009

Editor's Introduction - March 2009

“Scientists Come Out for Human Rights” by Sonia Shah. The Nation. January 27, 2009.

Scientists are often regarded by society as methodical intellectuals solely fixated in their pursuit of medical and technological advances. However, as detailed by Sonia Shah in this month's centerpiece, the establishment of the Science and Human Rights Coalition by the American Association for the Advancement of Science may usher new members to the field of human rights advocacy as scientists are being called upon to actively participate in the promotion and protection of human rights.

“The scientific masses have by and large remained impassively unmoved…with nary a head turned for the din and crash of messy social realities outside their rarefied digs. But cracks in that notoriously apolitical stance have started to appear.”

Increasingly, scientists and their scientific methods of research and analysis are utilized in the documentation of human rights abuses across the globe. Thus, for many scientists, incorporating human rights promotion into their work is unproblematic, and, in fact, may even be deemed complementary to the pursuit of truth and reason which lies at the heart scientific inquiry.

“Of course, it will take more than charitable intentions to reorient scientific inquiry to serve rather than undermine human rights.”

This recent push for human rights promotion reveals underlying tensions between scientists and those who fund scientific research and development. Specifically, corporations, such as chemical and pharmaceutical companies, and governments who may be responsible for human rights atrocities have the power to direct funding for research, and therefore direct research itself. Moreover, ever-present human rights violations demand expeditious responses by human rights defenders, which contrast sharply with the often slow-moving and cautious field of science. Here, it is essential to question whether scientists can be effective human rights advocates, or if their very methods of research and observation hinder human rights promotion when it is most needed. Regardless, by shedding new light and a fresh perspective on human rights protection, scientists, and the field of science, may have the potential to make significant strides in guaranteeing human rights.

These issues and others are considered in this month's Roundtable.


Scientists Have Been Out for Some Time Now: A Response to Sonia Shah

by Clair Apodaca, Florida International University

"Scientists and other scholars are actually more active in human rights advocacy than many other professional groups or many members of the general public. It is so because their work and research are intricately tied to human rights and human welfare issues."

Sonia Shah's categorization of the scientific community as having been “by and large… impassively unmoved [by human rights], churning out their papers, applying for grants and debating esoterica at their private professional meetings” is grossly inaccurate on at least two accounts.

  1. By and large members of all professions and the mass public are impassively unmoved by human rights violations around the world. Why single out hard scientists (chemists or physicists) specifically? In fact, in the fields of political science and international relations (social scientists), the disciplines with a natural interest in political and economic repression, only a very small percentage of scholars work on human rights—that is churning out papers. Far fewer join the human rights sections of the two major associations (APSA and ISA), which were only established in 2001 and 2006 respectively.
  2. Scientists have been active in human rights research and advocacy for years . A few examples should suffice, although an interested reader could pick up a copy of Richard Pierre Claude's Science in the Service of Human Rights ( University of Pennsylvania Press , 2002) for an excellent discussion of the topic:
    • a) Although the focus of Shah's article, the Science and Human Rights Coalition, was launched in January 2009, the Science and Human Rights Program (SHR) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was initiated in 1977. The AAAS has a long history of using its considerable methodological and statistical talent to investigate and analyze human rights violations. The organization has also been active in the promotion of human rights standards around the world and in providing technical assistance to human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Audrey Chapman, former director of the Science and Human Rights Program , explains that in the 1990s the focus of the SHR was on “providing experts for forensic investigations into suspicious deaths and exhumations of mass graves” and also for the “application of genetics to human rights for purposes of confirming or disproving a family link with children believed to have been kidnapped from human rights victims and to identify remains in mass graves.”
    • b) The Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), an organization that originated with AAAS, “develops database software, data collection strategies, and statistical techniques to measure human rights atrocities.” This group's expertise helps human rights NGOs develop evidence-based legal and moral cases against violators.
    • c) Physicians for Human Rights , a co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, celebrated its 20 th year as a human rights organization in 2006. Physicians for Human Rights exercises its political clout to pressure governments and mobilize the public to protect civilians. Moreover, the International Forensic Program has used its considerable forensic knowledge to investigate and document human rights violations for over two decades.
    • d) The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) works on a broad range of topics which often touch on human rights issues. Under the direction of Jeremy Stone, FAS was a strong advocate for human rights and this dedication continues under his successor Henry Kelly.
    • e) The American Statistical Association 's Committee on Scientific Freedom & Human Rights provides statistical expertise to scientific societies on questions concerning human rights violations.

Despite Shah's gross exaggeration and blanket dismissal of the scientific and academic community when it comes to human rights, she nonetheless brings up an issue of great concern. Shah points out the fact that multinational corporations are increasingly paying for research, thus directing the research project output. The “owner” of the research as commercial product will not willingly have the research reviewed by peers or published in scientific journals (least competitors pilfer the results), thus destroying the quality and rigor of scientific evidence. Indeed, in such cases, the findings of the research are the intellectual property of the corporation that uses the study or discovery for commercial purposes, thus expanding profits and not often improving human welfare. In this situation science and its potential discoveries are captured by economic interests. This can readily be seen in the field of agricultural research where the development and control of genetic materials, for example, by large agro-biotech corporations has been shown to threaten the livelihoods of small farmers and possibly the health of consumers. On this topic, Shah's analysis is on target, and perhaps the human rights academic community ought to pay more attention to this phenomenon.

In Shah's haste to dismiss the historic work of the scientific community, an aspect of the relationship between science and human rights that Shah did not mention is the issue of the scientist as victim of human rights violations. Scientists and other scholars are often at greater risk of political repression because they speak out against the possible consequences of their work and inventions for human rights, human wellbeing and human security. For example, biomedical advances may have beneficial or adverse affects on the life and dignity of human beings. Scientists who put out public warnings against the possible misuse of their research (for example for military use) or criticize the government for converting biological research into biological weapons, as an example, may find themselves under dangerous government scrutiny and not only in totalitarian states. Scientists' advocacy for the protection of other scientists has lead to the creation and persistence of several networks that distribute and publicize information on threatened scholars (and the repression they suffer). Among such networks are the Scholars at Risk Network , the Network for Education and Academic Rights (NEAR), and AAAS' Science and Human Rights Action Network . Again, we see the longstanding concern and activism of the scientific community in the pursuit of human rights standards.

Scientists and other scholars are actually more active in human rights advocacy than many other professional groups or many members of the general public. It is so because their work and research are intricately tied to human rights and human welfare issues (such as the development of weapons, biogenetic technologies, environmental protection, or understanding governmental power structures), but also because they are often the direct or indirect targets of government abuse and coercion. All in all, in writing a fluff piece on the issue of science and human rights, Shah's article does a disservice to the many scientists who devote their time, energy, and money to the cause of human rights protection.

Clair Apodaca is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. Dr. Apodaca has published extensively in the areas the international protection of human rights, women’s human rights and refugee studies. She is the author of Understanding U.S. Human Rights Policy: A Paradoxical Legacy (Routledge 2006). Her work has appeared in the Journal of Human Rights, International Studies Quarterly and Human Rights Quarterly among many others. In recognition of her scholarship in the field, human rights scholars and practitioners elected her to the first Executive Committee for Human Rights at the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 2001. Presently, Dr. Apodaca serves on the Executive Committee for Human Rights Section of the International Studies Association.


Scientists Promoting Human Rights

by Edward Friedman, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"We should welcome the involvement of scientists with a broadened notion of integrated human rights. We should think of new and large contributions by scientists globally on these matters to be crucial to any success in any larger human rights agenda."

Scientists have long been involved with work to protect fundamental human rights. The activities of the Federation of American Scientists to expose the health impact of nuclear testing in the atmosphere is typical. In the Soviet Union , many of the leading human rights activists, starting with the great Andrei Sakharov , were scientists. The same is true in China where a major intellectual force inspiring China's 1989 democracy movement was Fang Lizhi , an astrophysicist. Often their contribution to military security even gives them a little bit of protection.

Scientists often think of themselves as in a universal field of knowledge which is not defined by chauvinist identities. They tend to abhor, far more than most of their countrymen, the notion that Einstein's theory was Jewish science. In repressive regimes, because of the international nature of science and a need to know English, scientists have more access to international realities that contradict the propaganda of the ruling tyranny.

It is important that scientists concerned with global warming, climate change and environmental catastrophes that threaten life as we know it become involved with human rights work. The environment is a life and death issue impacting us all. In China , peaceful people with no hidden political agenda who get involved with protecting the environment or slowing or stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS have ended up in prison. It would be wonderfully helpful if scientists around the world would take up the cause of these victims of abuses of basic rights.

The Obama Administration should break with the Bush Administration's abandonment of the UN Human Rights Council because it privileged social and economic rights. The three sets of rights, political, economic and social, are part of the same, integrated universe of rights. America should not be afraid of social and economic rights.

When China became active in the International Labor Organization (ILO), it was not because the Chinese Communist Party regime intended to support free labor unions. It does not. But China does take advantage of the principle of universality to get on the governing board of the ILO and other international organizations and to use its clout to work against the human rights regime, including social and economic rights.

The US would have more credibility with developing nations if it were not afraid of social and economic rights activism. More harm could be prevented if human rights were understood in this broadened way. Therefore we should welcome the involvement of scientists with a broadened notion of integrated human rights. Their work is in the interest of the species.

If the species does not find ways to cooperate and share burdens fairly, conflict is ever more likely. War is the great generator of the worst human rights abuses. Therefore we should think of new and large contributions by scientists globally on these matters to be crucial to any success in any larger human rights agenda.

Edward Friedman is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is a long time member of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China. In the 1980s he was on the staff of the Foreign Affairs Committee where the issues he worked on included human rights, death squads, arms embargoes, and peaceful and democratic reconciliation. At Wisconsin, he introduced courses on "The Politics of Human Rights" and "The Politics of Freedom." His most recent book is Political Transitions in Dominant Party Systems.


Measuring the Unconscionable

by Sarah Stanlick, Harvard University

"One of the greatest challenges faced in the field of human rights is the “proof” needed to prosecute, negotiate, monitor, delegate, or resolve. By using scientific methodology, evidence is given to what is too often dismissed as baseless or subjective."

The combination of level-headed scientific approaches and passionate activism seems at first glance an incompatible relationship. For the passionate humanitarian, there is a hesitation in fear of “selling out” to the black and white world of science, that science would somehow take the “human” dimension away from human rights. However, the bigger issue—and opportunity—is the multitude of ways that the partnership between scientific method and human rights can yield possibilities and innovations. As described in Sonia Shah's piece in The Nation , scientists are coming together to lend their unique skills and perspective to the ever-changing global status of human rights. Through those scientific methods, a new and exciting dimension is being explored that will hopefully revolutionize how human rights research is carried out.

As with last month's Roundtable discussion of proportionality, there are so many subjective details that arise in matters of human rights violations and protections. By using scientific method and theory to assess some of these issues, there is increased validity and legitimacy to the claims made by activists and officials. As EarthRights International activist Matthew Smith said in The Nation piece, both human rights practitioners and scientists are concerned with “the pursuit of truth.” That truth is more accessible through the utilization of concrete measurements, analysis, and production to address when human needs are not being met, and evaluate when they are being violated. Geographers, anthropologists, engineers, and biologists can all lend their unique talents to different areas to collect evidence. That tangible evidence can be used to better help a population in danger, access those in the midst of a complex humanitarian emergency, or simply create structures to better meet the needs of an underserved people. Furthermore, the tangible signs of abuse can be presented to policymakers that will then have concrete basis to act.

One of the most useful tools has been GIS mapping and the utilization of geographers to chart changes in population dispersal. By having a visual of the remains of a village burned by militias, as in the case of Darfur , experts could then better understand the situation on the ground, including damages and movement of refugees. Furthermore, GIS mapping has been used to track down perpetrators of human rights abuses. UCLA geographers Thomas Gillespie and John Agnew recently published an article in the MIT International Review taking a cartographic approach to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Through using satellites, the team managed to narrow possible hiding places down to three plausible locations in Pakistan . While these are sophisticated educated guesses, the lessons learned through this thought exercise could be translated to finding other, less-well funded and hidden human rights violators taking refuge around the globe.

Another powerful use of scientific know-how is forensic investigations of human rights abuses. In the case of Physicians for Human Rights , trained experts document, collect, and provide analysis on evidence that can play a large role in the prosecution of war criminals. Forensics and the work of medical anthropologists have been critical in assessing abuses from Saddam Hussein's reign of terror in Iraq to the Killing Fields in Cambodia and beyond. As the Khmer Rouge genocide trial of Kaing Guek Eav opens in Cambodia , forensic evidence of mass killings and torture is expected to play a large part in the case.

Circumstances around deaths, timelines, volume of traumatic injury, and bones unearthed are irrefutable evidence to the horrors that populations have experienced. Bolstering cases against war criminals with this evidence ultimately allows justice to be served for those who suffered.

The use of science in human rights is not limited to the analysis of the negative, but of the creation of the positive. For instance, Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is a collection of engineers that lend their skills to projects that drastically improve the living conditions of impoverished populations and those who are in a period of recovery from disaster. Addressing issues of clean water delivery, lack of shelter and heat, and educational initiatives are all encompassed in the mission of EWB. Projects have improved the living conditions of thousands, and as chapters spring up around the nation, this successful volunteer opportunity is likely to yield many more positive changes.

The newly formed AAAS Science and Human Rights Program is indicative of a larger movement to marry abstract thinking and concrete tools that can allow for promising advances in the field of human rights. One of the greatest challenges faced in the field of human rights is the “proof” needed to prosecute, negotiate, monitor, delegate, or resolve. In the proverbial toolbox of the human rights practitioner, most tools are of a qualitative, and ultimately, debatable nature. With so many questions to answer in the world of human rights, there needs to be fact-based analysis that leads to measured responses. By using scientific methodology, evidence is given to what is too often dismissed as baseless or subjective. There will still be those who dig their heels in and remain deniers. But the legitimacy that evidence can bring will revolutionize the way the human rights field operates, and give tangible hope to those who feel their cause is lost.

Sarah Stanlick is currently heading a health and human rights project working to alleviate health burdens on the underserved population of Lawrence, MA and as a teaching assistant at Harvard University. She formerly served as Research Associate to Samantha Power at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and was also affiliated with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at HKS. She graduated as a Trustee Scholar from Lafayette College and holds a Master’s degree in Conflict and Coexistence from Brandeis University.


Enlightenment: Science and Human Rights

by Christien van den Anker, University of the West of London

"While we must welcome the development of scientists engaging with human rights, we must also remember that this should be a well-embedded practice and encourage the organization to engage with the full list of human rights in the whole world."

The subject of science and human rights sparks off thoughts of how this link has historically and geographically been severed, which has the effect of finding it newsworthy that scientists speak out in favor of human rights.

The ancient Greek philosophers were not limited in their subject matters in the same way as we take for granted now: science, society and the self were all deliberated about both empirically and normatively. Moreover, there was no division of labor between thinkers about one or other of these subjects.

Pre-Islamic Persian influences also affected debates on science. In the Middle Ages with Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholarly efforts mainly located in religious contexts, still there was no separation between studying science and society.

During the Enlightenment there was a clear link between progress in science and progress in human rights, both in theory and in practice. Despite the critics of the Enlightenment viewing the ideas of the period as dangerous in their adherence to universalism, social movements have taken up the idea of human rights as representative for their struggles all over the world. Science and society were still very clearly linked in this period.

The understanding in the 20 th century of what intellectuals should or should not address, was the result of divided opinions. With the emphasis on objectivity and the emphasis on finding “laws” of science, the social sphere became more separated from science and engagement was seen as the wrong thing to do for scientists who should instead be abstracting away from society. This led to a response in social sciences aiming to be scientific, too. Yet, it also created a counter-narrative of engaged scientists who should contribute to critical studies of societies and power.

Over time, it became recognized that it is important to engage with science in society. To some extent the invention and use of the atomic bomb was a watershed; several scientists have expressed regret over working on the Manhattan Project . Yet this was certainly not the only factor as there were other important scientific issues that affected large numbers of people: genetically modified food , HIV/AIDS, social impacts of the discovery of the human genome, and so on.

The article celebrating the creation of a specific body of scientists working for human rights, is clearly US-based. After 8 years of the Bush-junior Administration, many academics are afraid to go against government policy and have limited their methodology to mainstream scientific methods. The US is not alone in restricting academic freedom but it has a significant effect on the wider world of science.

Yet, there are also arguments to make that support the logic of scientists engaging with human rights in a natural way. Scientists and intellectuals are viewed as suspect by authoritarian regimes and often suffer human rights violations; many refugees are academics.

Moreover, scientists are frequently involved directly in human rights abuses: the British Medical Association has produced an official handbook for medical personnel, which indicates clearly their central role in torture.

Therefore, while we must welcome the development of scientists engaging with human rights, we must also remember that this should be a well-embedded practice and encourage the organization to engage with the full list of human rights in the whole world instead of targeting specific rights in specific countries only.

Dr Christien van den Anker is Reader in Politics at the University of the West of England. Her specialization is in Global Political Theory and Global Ethics. Her recent research has been on contemporary forms of slavery, migration and equality. Her most recent publications are “Human Rrights in Iran.” and “The Relevance of Ethnography of ‘Others’ for Global Political Theory” in the Journal of International Political Theory, (October 2008) and the cutting edge collection of essays W. J. Doomernik (eds.) Trafficking and Women’s Rights (Palgrave, 2006). Christien is founding co-editor of the Journal of Global Ethics (Taylor and Francis) and edits a book series on Global Ethics for Palgrave. More information can be found at her department website