Mona Younis directs the Science and Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which recently convened a panel of scientists and advocates to highlight successful collaborations that stemmed rights abuses in the D.C. prison system, recruited forensic experts to exhume mass graves in Bosnia, and focused international attention of vulnerable villages in Darfur. Her program just launched a matching service that will pair more researchers and advocates around the world. In her vision for the future, scientists will work with advocates with the same frequency—and with the same impact—as lawyers do today.
Rick Weiss, Science Progress: When people think of human rights, they think of wars, dictators and suffering, and when they think of science and technology they think of laboratories and computers—maybe nerds. To the extent that there’s any overlap at all, I can imagine people think maybe only about negative things like the wiring of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the science of torture. What are the positive connections between science and human rights that your group is trying to foster?
From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
Mona Younis: Well, there are many. Scientists have a history of being very concerned about freedoms of all kinds: freedom to practice science, freedom of expression, freedom of scientific inquiry. And they’ve also had a history of being very actively involved in defending the human rights of individual scientists who’ve been oppressed or under threat around the world. So there’s been a natural affinity between scientists and human rights, but what’s interesting is that increasingly, we’re finding scientists are open to considering additional ways in which they can be engaged in human rights. And that’s what the Science and Human Rights Program at AAAS is about: exploring those openings and interests, and figuring out what else can they do. We are discovering a number of different things.
Weiss: So there are specific science technologies or techniques that can be brought to bear? I think that many people are aware of the fact that in the situations involving genocide or mass graves, conventional forensic medicine can help identify bodies and how they were killed. Does it go beyond that? Do we get into fancier science—genetics or other fields?
Mona: Oh yes—that and much more. In fact, the Science and Human Rights program pioneered in the 1980s the application of forensic and genetic sciences to the exhumation of mass graves in Argentina. In the 1990s the program addressed a large-scale violation of human rights via statistical information management techniques. That was the first time that had been done and the program staffer at the time gave evidence at international tribunal in the former Yugoslavia in the case against Milošević.
Weiss: So this was a matter of having to develop new computer technology just to organize all the information from these bodies?
Younis: It wasn’t so much the technology, but it was organizing the information—how to collect and organize and capture the patterns and predictions of activity. That was unique.
Weiss: Because patterns of abuse are crucial to a conviction of genocide?
Younis: Absolutely, because it’s hard to capture intent. You’re not easily going to get the papers and documents giving the orders. If you are able to identify the pattern, and compare the evidence, then it’s possible.
Weiss: It’s great to see science in the service of bringing perpetrators to justice. It would be great if it could get further upstream. Are there ways science can be brought to bear with the idea of preventing human rights abuses?
Younis: We certainly hope so. In fact we say is, “Imagine what scientists have been able to accomplish with better documenting and reporting of violations.” The Science and Human Rights Program has been engaged in developing geospatial technology applications for human rights. We’ve done work in Darfur and Burma and Zimbabwe. We say “imagine”—and in this case it was a geographer who brought this technology and this tool to human rights—so imagine if scientists in every discipline considered what they might be able to contribute, what tools and expertise might be brought to bear to human rights challenges. Who knows what might be possible in terms of prevention and early warning?
Weiss: How could satellite imagery give an early warning of a problem as opposed to identifying something afterwards, like seeing evidence of mass graves?
Younis: The program worked last year with Amnesty International USA on Darfur and produced the Eyes on Darfur website, which was remarkable. It’s tracking the situation through images of 12 villages in Darfur—the idea is that we have “eyes in the sky,” and it is a signal to the potential perpetrators of further human rights violations that we are watching these 12 villages. We are keeping an eye on what is happening there, and so far, thank goodness, they have been fine. We would like to hope that it was helpful in prevention.
Weiss: Scientists wouldn’t necessarily bump into human rights activists at their usual dinner parties and find out that they have something to share with each other. How can we help people in need find people with the skills that can help human rights work?
Younis: Scientists have so much to contribute to human rights groups, and human rights groups have such a need for science and scientific expertise. The problem is how do they meet? To address that we recently launched a new project we’re calling On-Call Scientists. It’s a project aimed at cultivating the tradition of pro bono science and pro bono scientists, just as are is pro bono lawyers and lawyering for human rights groups. We’re determined to set up the same thing, establish the same tradition of science and scientific expertise for human rights organizations.
This is an online system where scientists can go to volunteer to be available to provide their time and expertise and answer questions in the service of human rights organizations or UN field offices that are engaged in human rights work and national human rights institutions. Similarly, we have a database that receives requests from these organizations for scientific expertise. As these fill up we have a committee that will work on the optimal partnerships between them. We are very excited because we just launched this in October, and we already have over 90 scientists who have signed up to volunteer.
Weiss: This is the ultimate online matching dating service.
Younis: Exactly. What could be better?
Weiss: How did you get into the business of science of human rights? Are you a scientist or a human rights advocate, or have you become both?
Younis: My training is as a sociologist, and I feel that my turning to sociology has something to do with human rights—in the sense that sociologists want to figure out how to fix things. And what’s better to fix than the situation of the human condition?
My first encounter with human rights was in the 70s, working on the Palestine human rights campaign. From then on my passion for human rights grew, and I was very fortunate to find an opportunity where I could combine my scientific training as a sociologist with my passion for human rights.
Weiss: I can see how the science of sociology might reasonably blend with the human rights issues. Have you found some cultural gaps that you’ve had to bridge? How do scientists generally get along as they try to get into the human rights business?
Younis: Well, there are, of course, issues on both sides. One of the things we are working on is looking at the language: developing translation documents for what scientists need to know about human rights, and what human rights practitioners need to know about scientists. There are, of course, issues there. But they’re not anything that can’t be overcome.
In fact working with one another enriches both communities. For some sciences it seems inconceivable that they can contribute to human rights, but then you discover that it is actually possible.
Last year we were contacted by a human rights organization that was working to set up a small human rights group in southern Sudan. They wanted to look at water contamination that they suspected was the result of oil drilling. So we worked to try to find a hydrologist to work with them.
It was fascinating because as I was reaching out to find hydrologists, and one responded with curiosity at first. After several communications, he emailed back and said, “You know what? I feel that water should be a human right.” And I was delighted to respond with several URLs—places where he could learn that water is indeed a human right.
Weiss: A newly radicalized hydrologist.
Younis: And he will not look at human rights in the same way ever again.
Weiss: Scientists are so used to sticking to the evidence, they sort of pride themselves sometimes on not adding interpretation. I can imagine it can be difficult for some of them to make the leap into advocacy. It sounds like from the experience with this hydrologist, something sometimes clicks.
Younis: Yes, you’re right. And there are different comfort levels, and we have to be patient. At the Science and Human Rights Program projects that apply science and technology to human rights problems, those projects are not involved in human rights advocacy directly. We are focused very much on the science piece. But we realize that with human rights work, it’s not gonna happen on its own. You cannot just do the science piece and expect it on it’s own to advance into human rights advances, so all those projects are conducted in partnerships with human rights groups. They do the advocacy directly.
But we are also creating other opportunities where scientists can become advocates for human rights. Since we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is an article—few people know this—number 27, devoted to the human right to the enjoyment of the advancement of science and scientific progress. That is something that scientists very naturally want to advocate for, or do now indirectly, but once they learn that it’s a human right, we hope that they become human rights advocates.
Weiss: I think there are few scientists out there who know that the work they are doing is actually embodied or described as a human right in a universal declaration created 60 years ago. Let’s just talk for just a minute about how to put some of these things into action in terms of public policy. I imagine at this point in our nation’s history, the U.S. government is not seen around the world as the savior of human rights. There’s been a lot of discussion about that in the course of the last administration. Is there though a role for the federal government, as we have a new administration coming in?
Younis: We certainly hope so. As human rights advocates, our role is to make sure that the governments including—or I should say especially—our own, given we are U.S. citizens, meet their human rights obligations. Our government has obligations to respect, protect and fulfill these various human rights. That is their goal; that is what they should be doing. The question is not, “Is there a role to play?”—it’s their responsibility. So in that sense there is a role for them to play.
Weiss: This year and this week is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No better time to reaffirm our commitment to those rights as a nation. You’ve got an interesting conference coming up on this don’t you?
Younis: On January 14 through the 16, we are launching the AAAS Science and Human Rights Collation. This is a network of scientific associations, societies, and science academies that believe that scientists and science are vital to the realization of human rights. Over 20 associations have been working together over the past year to lay the foundations for this collation. We are looking forward to January for launching it publicly. We’re very honored to have Mary Robinson, the former UN high commissioner for human rights and the former president of Ireland, one of the plenary speakers. Her joining us attests to the importance of the human rights community is placing on the engagement of as many segments as possible in the realization of human rights. It’s very clear that they are welcoming this initiative by scientists.