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Looking through a 'human rights lens' can improve S&T programmes, while S&T can help strengthen human rights work, says lawyer Jessica Wyndham.

Human rights are legal standards, voluntarily adopted by most countries in the world. Some view them as too amorphous to be applied in practice, or merely aspirational rather than realistic, but human rights in fact offer a valuable framework to guide government action, determine needs, influence priority-setting, inform policy development; and identify metrics by which to measure progress.

The human rights framework has much to say about science and technology (S&T) for development. It focuses on issues such as securing health; adequate housing, food, water and sanitation; and scientific progress — all of which, in turn, are inextricably linked to rights such as education, and the freedom of information and expression.

And emerging rights, such as those to clean energy and to Internet freedom, demonstrate how the concept of human rights can adapt to growing technological developments and awareness.

Putting human rights standards into practice is the responsibility of all branches of government. At the same time, industry, academia, nongovernmental organisations and individuals have important roles to play. The benefits for development are tangible.

Programme design

Human rights provide a valuable framework around which to design, implement, monitor and evaluate development programmes.

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a non-profit technology group that helps people gain access to solar electricity, is an example of an organisation that explicitly recognises "energy as a human right".

SELF projects are developed based on the needs and leadership of the communities they will serve, with a focus on full participation and ownership.

In Benin, SELF was approached by a professor wanting to provide electricity to off-grid villages. With the community, SELF installed a solar-powered drip irrigation system to pump water for crops to address food security, the community's primary concern.

For more than four years, the system has allowed farmers to grow fruit and vegetables during the six-month dry season, improving food security and nutrition for themselves and their families, and supplying excess food to be sold.

Policy support

Human rights are often enshrined in national legislation and constitutions, providing a basis for legal action.

For example, in 2000 the South African government committed to only limited provision of antiretroviral treatment that could reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS. In 2002, the Constitutional Court declared the programme a violation of the right to healthcare and required the government to make the treatment broadly available as well as extend testing and counselling for prospective mothers throughout the public health sector.

One key aspect of the case was the involvement of scientists in developing realistic distribution plans and demonstrating the 'reasonableness' of the alternative proposals. The court's decision is believed to have saved tens of thousands of lives.

A human rights lens can support policy in other ways. It can be used to analyse budgets as a tool for measuring and comparing governments' commitments to different policies; determining the cost of policy proposals; analysing the impact of budgetary choices on vulnerable populations; and assessing the adequacy of funding provided to fulfil human rights commitments.

In an example from Mexico, the government had long pledged to decrease maternal mortality. However, it was not until a coalition of health organisations used a strictly human rights lens to conduct an analysis of the budget that it became clear that funds were not being allocated to this purpose.

Based on this analysis and an economic assessment of the viability of alternative policies, the coalition worked with policymakers to increase the national budget for maternal health programmes.

Mutual reinforcement

While adopting a human rights-based approach strengthens the effectiveness of S&T programmes, the reverse is also true — scientific methodologies and technology strengthen human rights work.

Monitoring human rights abuses is one example of how scientific methods can be valuable.

The nongovernmental organisation Global Rights, for example, works with local communities, volunteer scientists and others to help them monitor the impacts of natural resource extraction. By learning to conduct research, including water and soil sampling, local communities can document how natural resource extraction impacts them.

Other organisations are using satellite imagery to document human rights abuses. For example, in 2011, Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science partnered in a project to document gas flaring that was occurring in the Niger Delta despite official government policy against the practice. [1]

Science also helps when it comes to developing the statistical methods necessary to measuring progress towards the realisation of human rights.

These examples reflect the mutually reinforcing nature of the relationship between S&T and human rights. What serves as the foundation for this relationship is the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.

Translating this and other human rights into practice is an ongoing task that will not be achieved without rigorous scientific methods and innovative applications of technology. Nor will it be achieved without the commitment of policymakers, and the scientific and engineering communities.

Jessica Wyndham is associate director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Jessica can be contacted at [email protected].

This article is part of a Spotlight on Linking human rights, science and development.


[1] Eyes on Nigeria: Technical Report Industrial Gas Flaring (Report, AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, accessed August 2012)