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Tools for Truth Telling

Sarah Dreier and William Schulz on Science in the Service of Human Rights

The Porta Farm settlement in Zimbabwe, where government forces demolished the homes of about 700,000 people in 2005. This image analysis by AAAS shows 870 destroyed structures.  © Copyright 2006 DigitalGlobe Inc. SOURCE: AAAS, DigitalGlobe Inc. The Porta Farm settlement in Zimbabwe, where government forces demolished the homes of about 700,000 people in 2005. This image analysis by AAAS shows 870 destroyed structures. © Copyright 2006 DigitalGlobe Inc.
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Read the full report: New Tools for Old Traumas

cover of report: New Tools for Old Traumas, with man standing at Kenyan mobile phone shop

Read the full report (CAP)

Human rights advocates have made use of the latest technology, particularly communications tools, for hundreds of years. Eighteenth- and 19th-century abolitionists in the United States relied heavily on the advance of printing technologies to spread their message through newspapers, William Schulz points out. The world learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust through photographs and newsreels. And, Schulz explains, “If you look at the civil rights movement in this country, the images of Bull Connor’s dogs attacking the civil rights workers or the peaceful sit-ins in the south—those transformed the civil rights movement into a national movement and really made a difference.”

Schulz, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, was formerly the executive director of Amnesty International USA. He left the human rights organization in 2006, but during his tenure he witnessed rapid advances in communication tools that extended advocates’ capabilities through web technologies. “We were seeing remarkable expansion of our ability to reach literally tens and hundreds of thousands of people very, very quickly with the truth, with the messages, with the kind of activist inspiration that we wanted to provide,” he says.

But he also saw that communications tools were just one technology that could support human rights work. Geographers and geospatial researchers can use commercial satellite imagery to document the destruction of villages in conflict zones, and forensic scientists can exhume mass graves, identifying victims and preserving evidence for bringing war criminals to justice. Schulz, joined by former CAP researcher Sarah Dreier, sat down for a conversation with Science Progress to talk about science in the service of human rights, the topic of the new report from the Center, “New Tools for Old Traumas: Using 21st Century Technologies to Combat Human Rights Atrocities.”

Collaborations between scientists and human rights advocates have led to projects like the Eyes on Darfur campaign, which uses updated satellite imagery to keep watch over a group of villages threatened by violence in Sudan. In the 1990s, forensic scientists exhuming mass graves in the region surrounding Srebrenica in Bosnia collected key evidence used in the conviction of Serbian General Radislav Krstic for war crimes. More recent examples include the use of SMS technology for gathering election monitoring information and using satellite image analysis to document potential mass grave sites in Afghanistan.

Dreier and Schulz argue in their report that federal policy changes could facilitate this often difficult work. The Science and Human Rights program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science is one of the groups that provides geospatial analysis in collaboration with groups like Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights. But as Dreier explains, there are several hurdles to building a credible case for human rights violations based on satellite evidence, beginning with the fact that public place-name databases operated by the Department of Defense used for locating village coordinates in many remote conflict areas are not up to date. Once they have located a hot spot, scientists must procure current satellite imagery, which can be difficult if there are competing government demands for commercial satellite use. Moreover, NGOs are allowed access only to downgraded resolution images, which are still expensive, usually running $2,000 a piece.

Dreier explains that a review of satellite imagery policies could allow human rights groups access to higher-quality, timely information without compromising national security or intelligence interests. But she also points out that even the best science and technology are no panacea for stopping human rights abuses. “The final hurdle is the need to find political will to identify that this violence is going on and create some substantive change so that we can end these atrocities,” she says.

Read the full report: New Tools for Old Traumas (CAP)

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