Science Progress | Where science, technology, and progressive policy meet

Science Secures Human Rights

Researchers and Advocates Link Violations to Data Points

Satellite pictures taken before and after an attack on the village of Angabo in Darfur. SOURCE: Satellite pictures taken before and after an attack on the village of Angabo in Darfur. There are a growing number of cases in which technologies developed for routine scientific and medical uses are finding unexpected application in the shrouded world of genocide, torture, and political oppression.

Weiss’s Notebook

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss covered science and medicine for The Washington Post for 15 years, and now he brings his investigative eye to science policy. From cloning and stem cells to agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology, Weiss examines the issues at the intersection of cutting edge research and public policy.

In the political turmoil that devastated Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of adults were abducted and killed by paramilitary forces, and many of their children were “adopted” by wealthy adults affiliated with the government or the military. The task of reuniting these young victims with what remained of their families seemed impossible in the decades that followed. Impossible, that is, until scientists joined with human rights activists and developed sophisticated genetic tests that could link the youngsters with their surviving grandparents.

In a similar collaboration, experts with Physicians for Human Rights helped unearth hundreds of bodies from mass graves in the Srebrenica region of Bosnia and used their skills in pathology, radiology, and forensic anthropology and archaeology to document war crimes that had been committed there in 1995. The work built on the group’s earlier efforts in Croatia, where it collected scientific evidence that led the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to indict Yugoslav Army officers for the mass killing of hundreds of hospital patients.

And in Darfur, where raping and pillaging janjaweed gunmen have repeatedly overrun villages, activists at Amnesty International last year arranged to have commercial satellites focus on a dozen villages deemed at high risk of attack. The organization invited people around the globe to keep an eye on the targeted areas, and informed Sudan’s president that the world would be watching for human rights abuses. Today those villages remain intact, perhaps the first ever to be protected by global, technology-enabled citizen policing.

These are among a growing number of cases in which technologies developed for routine scientific and medical uses are finding unexpected application in the shrouded world of genocide, torture, and political oppression. In addition to fostering the rule of law around the globe, the collaborative programs are reenergizing experts from both specialties—giving human rights activists the objective tools they’ve long needed to strengthen their cases against those who violate international law, and at the same time rewarding scientists and doctors with the knowledge that their skills are being used for a greater good.

We can make it harder for people to get away with these crimes,” said Ariela Blätter of Amnesty International USA’s Center for Crisis Preparedness and Response.

Human rights work is inherently political, and scientists often chafe when it comes to adding layers of political interpretation to their basic objective findings.

Blätter was one of a half-dozen experts in science, medicine and human rights who told their stories at an event last week sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Washington-based general science organization has a Science and Human Rights Program that has long sought to foster synergy between the two fields. Last week it launched the latest of those efforts: an “on-call scientists” database to facilitate the matching of appropriately skilled scientists with human rights organizations that could use their help.

Sometimes all that is needed of scientists is a means of showing the world what has happened—through land- or satellite-based photographic images, for example. In a growing number of cases, commercial satellite images are not only providing important legal evidence but, equally important, they are evoking pangs of compassion from a world that at times seems all too willing to ignore rights abuses.

In one case, a simple pair of before-and-after pictures taken in Zimbabwe resulted in a huge outpouring of outrage and calls for justice, Blätter said. In the first picture, a village is intact. In the second, 850 homes have been destroyed in an apparent act of political punishment by an oppressive regime—an act that left thousands of residents homeless and violated international law.

“It’s the ‘seeing is believing’ concept on steroids,” Blätter said.

Scientists and human rights workers are products of very different kinds of training, and the gradual integration of the two communities—a delicate pas de deux that AAAS geographer Lars Bromley called “flirting, dating, and then marriage,” —has not been easy. For one thing, human rights work is inherently political, and scientists often chafe when it comes to adding layers of political interpretation to their basic objective findings.

Yet many are warming to the idea that they can have a role in advocacy. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he has been working with the DC Prisoners’ Project to assure that prisoners’ healthcare rights are not violated while they are incarcerated—a commitment that he said has added a lot to the satisfaction he gets from his work.

Unfortunately, as a matter of public policy, there are few mechanisms in place to foster such collaboration between scientists and human rights workers, and there are a fair number of obstacles that need to be lowered, especially in the arena of federal rules and procedures. Indeed, given the current administration’s legacy with regard to secret extraditions, abridged rights of accused terrorists, and the rewriting of rules relating to torture, most human rights organizations at this point consider the U.S. government a less-than-welcome partner. But that does not mean there is no role for federal dollars or federal policy-making bodies in the fight for human rights at home and around the world.

Beyrer recounted the hassles he faced when he sought to initiate a study in which DC prisoners’ attorneys were to be recruited, without the jail’s knowledge, to gather information about how their clients’ healthcare needs were being met. Since the study would involve human beings, it had to pass muster with the Johns Hopkins institutional review board, which is charged with the protection of human subjects in research. Thinking conventionally, the board wanted evidence that the prison had signed off on the project.

It took some “educating” to convince the board that secrecy was the whole point, Beyrer said. In other human rights cases, IRB’s have had to adjust to the idea that anonymity is sometimes crucial to getting at the truth. As a matter of policy, it may be that the rules that typically govern federally funded research will need to be reinterpreted to more easily accommodate this important class of work.

Similarly, when U.S. government investigators do show up at scenes of suspected human rights abuses abroad—in many cases, it’s the military that arrives—they often dominate the crime scene and compete, rather than cooperate, with nongovernmental human rights groups that also are there, panelists said. And while the quality of the government’s science may be good, the military’s approach to such investigations tends undervalue the emotional context of the crimes being investigated, including the importance of helping families gain possession of their loved ones’ remains for proper burial, said Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, adding that a little training in this regard could buy the government a lot of good will.

Finally, because research relating to human rights violations does not fit cleanly into the primary funding silos through which federal grant money flows, there is no obvious source of support for scientific studies of human rights issues. There is no institute within the National Institutes of Health that explicitly focuses on the topic, nor is there a branch of the National Science Foundation that is a natural fit with human rights concerns.

IRB policies, on-site investigator behaviors, and funding channel scopes are not written in federal stone. It would be a powerful first step down the road of global justice if, as the next administration’s new agency heads parse their 2009 policies and budgets, a few of these procedural wrongs could be righted.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.


Comments on this article

By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the Science Progress Privacy Policy and agree to the Science Progress Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.