International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

By Dan Olamide Eboka, Dechen Piya, and Andrea Vremis

IN FOCUS

The Digital Divide – a COVID response

MIT Technology Review

Approximately half a billion students, including at least 11 million girls, have been affected by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an impact particularly felt by students in developing economies who are unable to study from home due to a lack of electricity, internet access and suitable technologies. Already disadvantaged in comparison to learners in ‘developed’ countries, today such students are at even greater risk of receiving an inadequate education as social-distancing rules and anti covid measures increasingly move teaching online. This was part of the focus of the 15thAnnual Internet Governance Forum 2020 (IGF), hosted by the Secretary General of the United Nations, where over 6,000 participants from 173 countriesjoined an online discussion forum to address the topic of “Internet for human resilience and solidarity”.  

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, advocated that today’s digital technology should be “put to work for those who need it the most.” He remarked that while the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of digital-technologies and the benefits of connectivity, “it has also exacerbated inequalities, including basic online access”. The IGF, founded in 2006, brings together stakeholders from both private and public entities, in an advisory capacity, to discuss policies and issues relating to the Internet and new media. At the Forum, Guterres stressed the importance of inclusionurging world governments to make sure that their “response and recovery plans include increasing digital connectivity in a way that is affordable, safe and inclusive.” 

These are unprecedented times and the full magnitude of the pandemic’s impact may take years  to be fully registered.  However, technology and internet access, the key means by which to connect the world, stand as decisive factors today. The digital-divide is one of the most pressing issues in our covid world, reflecting major human rights issues of inequality, including the right to education.

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Can a novel scientific method provide evidence of torture?

By Paula Suárez-López

How can torture survivors prove that they have been tortured when there are no physical marks left in their bodies? During the last decades, torturers are increasingly using psychological torture and physical torture methods that hardly leave any visible physical sign. Prolonged solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, positional stress, constant loud noise and waterboarding, widely used by the US in the context of the war on terror and by other countries around the world, are just five examples of this. Despite not leaving marks, these forms of torture cause extreme mental and sometimes physical suffering and often have devastating consequences for the survivor’s mental health. To obta in justice and reparations, torture survivors need something to show. Psychological assessments can be very helpful, but often are not sufficient. Is it possible to find biological markers of torture that support torture allegations? In a recent article in the Torture Journal, entitled ‘The potential of epigenetic methods to provide evidence of torture’, I propose to test a novel approach, based on state-of-the-art molecular biology methods, to this effect.

Trauma is associated with changes in the DNA

 There is mounting evidence that trauma, such as childhood abuse or war-related trauma, is associated with certain changes in the genetic material, the DNA. These changes, called epigenetic changes, do not alter the genetic information carried by DNA. They alter epigenetic marks, which are tags that are added to, or removed from, the DNA to modulate gene activity. Changes in these marks make genes either more active or less active. Epigenetic changes occur naturally and are often a natural response to environmental influences, such as temperature or nutrition. The term “molecular scars” has been used for these changes when they are associated with trauma or stress. Now the question is whether torture, an extreme form of trauma, leaves molecular scars in the DNA. Although this can be very difficult to prove, my article argues that it is worth testing whether torture is associated with changes in epigenetic marks, because, if this were the case, perhaps detecting these changes might contribute to support allegations of torture in the future. This would be a breakthrough.

Limitations of epigenetic methods

But this road is not an easy one. Even if they work, epigenetic methods will not be a silver bullet. The article, does not argue that epigenetic methods will provide irrefutable proof of torture. What it argues is that, as a first step, it is possible to test whether torture survivors show differences in epigenetic marks relative to people who have not been tortured or people who have experienced other types of trauma. However, the interpretation of the results has to be cautious because an association of torture with epigenetic changes would not necessarily mean that torture causes those changes. Proving this would be much more difficult. Another question is whether epigenetic methods are sensitive enough. The differences in epigenetic marks between traumatised and non-traumatised people are small, usually not bigger than 5 %. Would differences in this range be sufficient to be considered reliable in torture cases? Also, the trauma-related differences have not always been reproducible. And would there be epigenetic changes that are distinctive of torture, as opposed to other types of trauma? All these limitations have to be taken into account when analysing epigenetic marks in torture survivors.

Ethical considerations

Epigenetic experiments with human samples also raise ethical concerns. As any experimentation with human subjects, these experiments must respect all the bioethics principles, which include, among others, avoiding all unnecessary physical and mental suffering; obtaining free and informed consent; and allowing the subjects to withdraw from the experiments or withdraw their consent whenever they wish. Torture survivors can be particularly vulnerable and measures must be taken to avoid re-traumatisation. In addition, privacy and confidentiality must be respected, especially taking into account that some epigenetic methods can reveal the genetic information of the subject.

Advantages of epigenetic methods

Despite all these caveats, epigenetic methods can have advantages when it comes to torture. Particularly promising are results obtained in people subjected to acute sleep deprivation. Compared with individuals who got a full night’s sleep, sleep-deprived subjects showed differences in epigenetic marks in genes related with sleep/wake cycles. Not only does this indicate that stress induces epigenetic changes – something previously shown in animals – it also suggests that certain forms of stress or trauma can be associated with specific changes in epigenetic marks. Let us imagine that torture is associated with epigenetic changes. Then, it would be worth testing whether there are epigenetic changes that are distinctive of certain forms of torture. Moreover, some epigenetic marks are stable and can be detected years after a traumatic event has occurred. There is the possibility that, if torture leaves molecular scars, these can be revealed when other physical signs have already disappeared or never existed.

In sum, the technology to analyse epigenetic marks is available and might be used to determine whether torture is associated with epigenetic changes. Torture survivors, especially those without physical marks of this atrocious human rights violation, are in dire need of proof of their experience. It is a moral imperative to test whether epigenetic methods are useful for this purpose. Finding biological markers of torture would not only help survivors to prove their case and obtain justice, reparation and redress, it would also contribute to preventing torture because it would make potential torturers think twice before inflicting such abhorrent treatment. Other potential benefits would be helping to find new methods to mitigate the effects of torture on the health of survivors and helping to refine the definition of torture. Science can contribute to preventing and prosecuting human rights violations and hopefully epigenetic methods will be a new tool for this purpose.

Paula Suárez-López is a scientist who has made a career change to the human rights field after doing scientific research for three decades. She has a PhD in Biological Sciences and a recent MA in Theory and Practice of Human Rights. She has published her work in various peer-reviewed journals. Currently, her main interest is the use of science to advance human rights.

The US Election and Human Rights

(The feature image is from GETTY IMAGES)

Dr. Todd Landman

Americans have a strong conviction that our country has a commitment to human rights. Whether this commitment centres on certain sets of ‘self-evident’ and inalienable rights protected through political and legal institutions or as the basis for pursuing foreign policy, rights run through our birth as a nation and through our history as a grand experiment in collective self-governance and as a global power.  

The history of the United States is one in which the advance of rights has partly closed the gap between de jurecommitment and de facto realisation. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and minority rights have seen an expansion in their legal protection; however, these different advances have been highly contested, subject to partial reversal, and have not yet been fully realised for many. 

Moreover, some categories of rights, such as the right to health, remain alien to a country founded on rugged individualism and a deep suspicion of government control over what many perceive are private decisions. The United States is the only OECD country without universal healthcare and yet has the highest per capita expenditure on healthcare. Health inequality is high, in terms of both expenditure and outcomes.

The 2020 US Elections brought to high relief these different tensions between democracy, human rights, and the role of government in shaping the good life. Joe Biden’s victory projects a new lens on these fundamental questions for American democracy and its commitment to human rights, but it will not be a panacea.

Human Rights at Home

Biden repeatedly campaigned on Americans’ fundamental right to vote, while the challenges of running an election in a country severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have been evident throughout all phases of this electoral cycle. Mixed measures for voting, rules for registration and eligibility, timing, and the final tabulations have all affected the sanctity of this fundamental right for all Americans to take part in the democratic process. Biden’s commitment to this right has been an important pillar to his success and will likely be a key feature of his time as President.   

The protection of minority rights will return under the new presidency, where Biden remains committed to the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and has pledged to provide a path to citizenship for the more than 820,000 people affected by this policy. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 saw the first African-American President, while the 2020 election of Kamala Harris as Vice President sees the first woman of colour to hold that office in history. The campaign also ran on addressing longer-term trends of institutional racism and a pledge to combat racial injustice, themes fuelled by the widespread social unrest following the police killing of George Floyd and other African-Americans. 

This past year will long be remembered for the outbreak and spread of COVID19 across the world, which also deeply affected the United States. Biden made combatting the pandemic a recurring theme of his candidacy through words and deeds. His early use of ‘basement broadcasts’ gave way to socially distanced campaign events, debates, and virtual town halls. He repeatedly supported the use of scientific evidence on how best to address the most serious public health crisis to affect the United States in over 100 years, and he has pledged to ‘listen to the scientists’ in crafting his response. 

Fundamental to his approach is a commitment to the right to health, which he will pursue during his presidency with reform of the Affordable Care Act to include a public mandate, new tax credits, expansion of coverage to low income Americans, protection of those with pre-existing conditions, and reduction of complexity in accessing healthcare. His commitment to healthcare does not go as far as full universal coverage evident in other developed countries and will be a highly contested feature of his presidency. 

The renewal of these and other rights commitments will be mediated and adjudicated through legal and political institutions, where the Republicans are likely to control the Senate, the Democrats to control the House, and a 6-3 conservative balance of power in the Supreme Court after the confirmation of Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.  This separation of powers at the national level is coupled with variation of partisan control at the state and local level, where commitments to rights will continue to be debated and contested. 

Human Rights Abroad

There is a long held belief that US foreign policy is committed to democracy and human rights. The defeat of Nazism in World War II, and the foundational work of Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations helped bring about the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rhetoric and reality of the US commitment to human rights, however, has vacillated through the years to include covert and overt foreign interventions, the use of extraordinary renditiontorture, and targeted assassination of foreign terror suspects using drones, as well as lukewarm support for the International Criminal Court.   

The tension between US national interest and international norms, rules, and laws has been a key feature of US Foreign policy during the ‘War on Terror.’ Biden is part of this policy world, both as Senator and as Vice President. He will, however, seek a return to multilateralism, repair strained alliances such as NATO, the EU, and other partners, and has already pledged to re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.  

Biden inherits ongoing conflicts around the world and significant foreign policy challenges with respect to trade, immigration, and terrorism. His renewed embrace of international institutions and a turn away from unilateral nationalism may reintroduce more attention to international human rights, but there are significant legacies and liabilities from his own record that should make human rights scholars and practitioners maintain their vigilance.

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Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science, Executive Director of the Rights Lab Beacon of Excellence, and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Previously, he was Professor of Government and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Essex. He is author of Citizenship Rights and Social MovementsIssues and Methods in Comparative PoliticsProtecting Human RightsStudying Human RightsMeasuring Human Rights, and Democracy and Human Rights: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals. He is also host of The Rights Track podcast.