SCIENCE AND HUMAN RIGHTS
By Stuart Umpleby
On January 11, 2011, I attended a meeting of the Coalition on Science and Human Rights of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS publishes Science magazine, and the headquarters are in Washington, DC. AAAS has individual members and affiliated societies. Science policy issues, such as population growth, climate change, and stem cell research, are discussed at its conferences. The Coalition on Science and Human Rights is working to define how scientists can contribute to progress on human rights. Most of the conversation concerned examples of what some groups of scientists are doing, and there was the suggestion that other groups of scientists think about what they could contribute.
The meeting began with some presentations on Haiti. Some points that were made by panelists were: There has been little science education in Haiti. Haiti has weak science associations. US aid (e.g., gifts of rice) aided farmers in Arkansas (increased demand and hence price) but not farmers in Haiti. The gifts of rice lowered the price of rice grown by Haitian farmers and hence made their circumstances worse.
Satellite photos showed where the earthquake damage was. Street maps of Haitian towns and cities were poor but were rapidly improved via crowd sourcing. People used the internet to help people locate their relatives. A system for transferring money via cell phones was developed, thereby eliminating corrupt middlemen. A similar system had been developed for paying soldiers in the Afgan army.
“Open innovation” is an alternative to five year plans. There is a great increase in the number of problem solvers. It is possible now to more easily capture and share existing knowledge and solutions.
There was discussion of adding a human right to development (a right to knowledge, to a decent standard of living, to a clean environment) to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to making such a right a part of U.S. foreign policy. Some people spoke of a right to benefit from scientific advance. Finland has adopted a right to broad band web access.
Statisticians without Borders conducted a survey in Haiti to find out what people’s needs were. They used cell phones. People answer cell phone calls because there is no charge for the person answering a call. 83% of men and 67% of women have cell phones. They found that the houses of the rich were largely unaffected by the quake, but the houses of the poor collapsed. There were no cholera cases in Haiti prior to the quake.
A group called Digital Democracy reported on their human rights work in Burma. They mapped violent incidents. In Haiti they asked, Whose voices are missing? Their answer was that women were not fully represented in conversations about disaster response. In Haiti rape is treated as a crime of honor. The man pays a small fine or marries the woman. There was an epidemic of rape in the camps after the quake. There was a lack of response from all levels of society. Tents have no doors that can be locked. The group distributed whistles that women wore around their necks. The group focused on lighting and security patrols to reduce rape. Solar panel flash lights were distributed.
In one panel the contribution of scientists was said to be bringing objective information to emotional situations.
There are human rights issues in resource rich countries. People think their lives will get better if oil or some mineral is discovered. But usually their lives get worse. Water is polluted or is diverted. Wells go dry or are contaminated. The quality, availability or accessibility of water is often reduced. Scientists can help Human Rights lawyers as expert witnesses. Scientists understand industry standards. They know what a company can do to protect the environment and what it cannot do. Scientists can provide examples from other countries. “Without data you are just another person with an opinion.” Scientists can provide data.
One group worked on the health care problems of women in Washington, DC, jails.
Social scientists can contribute to human rights in various ways. Does a reform program work? Program evaluation studies can aid the policy process. Social scientists can collect and organize data, map it and graph it to present to administrators and policy makers. Discussion groups can be organized to empower people. Scientists can provide advice or advocate for a neglected group of people.
Scientific associations can increase their involvement in human rights work by organizing a human rights track at their annual meetings. Simply suggest that working on human rights is an activity that members might want to engage in.
Stuart Umpleby, Research Program in Social and Organizational Learning
2033 K Street NW, Suite 230, The George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052
www.gwu.edu/~umpleby, tel. 202-994-1642, fax 202-994-4411
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