Human Rights Gets Technical

A CAP event identifies ways technology can combat human atrocities.


“The examples of ways technology can be used to advance human rights are as diverse as they are inventive,” said former Center for American Progress Research Assistant Sarah Dreier at a CAP event last Tuesday. The event coincided with the release of “New Tools for Old Traumas,” a report authored by Dreier and CAP Senior Fellow William Schulz. The report sought to bridge the gap between science and human rights by identifying ways technology can be used to increase humanitarian efforts.

Moderated by Schulz, the event’s panel also included Susan Wolfinbarger, senior program associate for the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS; and Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

The report highlights four technology developments that could help human rights—satellite imagery, databases and data analysis techniques, medical forensics, and social networking. It also notes that the rapid expansion of computing and the Internet has allowed governments, activists, and citizens to gather unprecedented amounts of information about human rights violations and disseminate it widely.

Schulz pointed out that the use of technology to advance human rights is still in its infancy. “Science and human rights do not appear to be, at first glance, obvious bedfellows,” he said.

He explained that science focuses on facts independent of ideology, whereas human rights activists use facts for value-laden ends. Some scientists may therefore be wary of human rights practitioners who incorrectly appropriate research for political purposes. But Schulz underscored that “human rights work is utterly dependent upon establishing accuracy in its observations.”

According to Schulz, the Obama administration’s commitment to science could mean an expansion of human rights work—but only if the connection between technology and rights are made clear. President Barack Obama set a goal that at least 3 percent of America’s gross domestic product be spent on scientific research and development. He also proposed an 8.5 percent increase in the National Science Foundation funding.

Wolfinbarger said science is already helping advance human rights agendas. In 2006 the AAAS began working with human rights nongovernmental organizations to acquire satellite and mapping analysis that provide evidence of human rights abuses, including destroyed villages, secret prison camps, or mass graves.

In collaboration with Amnesty International,, the AAAS identified 12 villages in Darfur to monitor via satellite in Amnesty’s “Eyes on Darfur” project. The group is able to “to let the world know that [U.S. human rights groups are] watching, and that, even though we can’t access these villages on the ground, we’re still interested in what’s going on,” she said.

The problem is locating affordable, quality images, Wolfinbarger said. The satellite images available to NGOs are poorer in quality than images available to the government. And getting those images in a timely manner is expensive.

Danger on the ground is also a problem when it comes to investigating human rights abuses. Sirkin said her organization tried to investigate a major massacre in northern Afghanistan. But many witnesses who spoke to journalists and investigators were arrested, abducted, or, in one case, tortured.

In addition, using technology to address human rights abuses is complicated because it requires technical support and political will to make sure that resources are used the way they need to be. But Dreier said that besides the lack of political will, the largest barrier is that too many actors who could utilize resources lack access to existing tools. For example, images from WorldView-1—among the most technologically advanced satellites currently in orbit—are in high demand and often cost around $2,000, which is an onerous price tag for human rights NGOs.

Dreier suggested that the U.S. government make satellite imagery in high-risk locations, including parts of Darfur and Burma, publicly available on a regular basis. Ongoing public web-based monitoring could allow everyone to keep an eye on areas susceptible to human rights atrocities. She also suggested that the State Department build on existing “21st Century Statecraft” initiatives by using communication technologies like GoogleMaps and texting to facilitate human rights communication and monitoring. She called on American and international mobile companies to provide text-messaging services for human rights purposes at little or no cost.

Dreier concluded that the government needs to remove the logistical and political barriers “that inhibit scientists and human rights advocates’ ability to use these tools to bring human right perpetrators to justice, stymie ongoing atrocities, empower victims to fight against their own injustices, and help those that are vulnerable and poor access the resources that they need.”

For more on this event please see its events page.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.