published December 5, 2012

Applying Scientific Method and Technology to Human Rights

Jessica M. Wyndham
Associate Director, Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science


Since the 1980s, efforts to use scientific methods and innovative applications of technology for human rights purposes have expanded. Examples include:
- statisticians designing surveys to measure the human rights impact of policies and programs;
- geologists studying the impacts of extractive industry activities on food and water sources;
- health practitioners conducting physical and mental assessments to document torture; and
- geographers using satellite imagery to document human rights violations occurring in dangerous and remote locations.

Evidence-based research and analysis is vital to ensuring credibility and impact in human rights work. Scientific methods allow human rights practitioners to document, monitor and present information about human rights-related events in a systematic way that may not otherwise be possible. Furthermore, the science behind these methods is rigorous, adding to the credibility of the advocacy, awareness raising or policy proposals that result from the research.

Practice shows that partnering scientists with human rights organizations can lead to important outcomes. In 2006, Patrick Ball testified before an international tribunal in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. Ball had developed a system to analyze border registries documenting the flow of Kosovar Albanian refugees to determine whether a policy of ethnic cleansing or NATO airstrikes resulted in their flight. In another example, in July 2012, an Argentine tribunal convicted two former military leaders for their role in the kidnapping of dozens of babies of individuals disappeared during that country's "dirty war." Identification of the children of the disappeared was made possible through DNA analysis.


Several programs and initiatives exist to partner scientists with human rights organizations requiring technical expertise. The AAAS On-call Scientists initiative is the only multi-disciplinary effort to engage scientists, engineers and health professionals specifically in human rights. Other programs that address development, social justice and humanitarian issues include Statistics Without Borders, Geoscientists Without Borders, GISCorps, Engineering for Change, and Scientists Without Borders.


The use of scientific methods and technology in human rights work is just beginning: human rights tribunals are starting to address the practical, technical and legal issues associated with bringing scientific evidence into the courts; and human rights organizations are starting to explore creative ways science and technology can support their work. As these collaborations expand, it is vital that scientists maintain their independence and objectivity, and that the rigor of their methods not be compromised to fit the agenda or advocacy goals of their human rights partner. It is precisely the independence, objectivity and rigor of their methods that make scientists' contributions to human rights efforts so valuable.