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APA Human Rights Activities: A Brief and Partial Inventory

Wednesday, August 19, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Amy Dietrich
August 2, 2015

The list below consists of brief descriptions of missions or programs and a few examples of recent activities.  The list is organized around five areas:

  • Promoting psychologists’ respect for human rights in their research and practice;
  • Monitoring and protection of individual human rights, including psychologists’;Advocacy to ensure that governments’ meet their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights;
  • Promoting the contributions of  psychology and psychologists to human rights promotion and protection;
  • Policy development;
  • Public education.

In developing this list, we have been guided by the following discussion about human rights taken from the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible. Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law, in the forms of treaties, customary international law, general principles and other sources of international law. International human rights law lays down obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

The international human rights movement was strengthened when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948. Drafted as ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations', the Declaration for the first time in human history spells out basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy. It has over time been widely accepted as the fundamental norms of human rights that everyone should respect and protect. The UDHR, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, form the so - called International Bill of Human Rights.

Human rights entail both rights and obligations. States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights. The obligation to respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the individual level, while we are entitled to our human rights, we should also respect the human rights of others.

The International Standards Organization published guidance for organizations on social responsibility in 2010 that is relevant to APA as an organization. Human rights is one aspect of the International Standards of Social Responsibility (ISO 26000).

Promoting psychologists’ respect for human rights in their research and practice

Office of Research Ethics
The Office of Research Ethics has within its purview safeguarding and promoting the rights and welfare of human participants in research. In coordination with the Committee on Human Research, the office engages in advocacy and educational activities geared towards protecting the rights and welfare of all human participants in research, especially those from vulnerable populations such as children, prisoners, and individuals with impaired decision-making capacity.

Ethics Office

The Ethics Office and Committee support continued engagement concerning the integration of culture, ethics, and human rights by providing programming hours at Convention to the Ethnic Minority Psychological Associations for on-going dialog regarding these important issues.  The Office and Committee also provide travel awards sponsored by Division 44 and APAGS for attendance for LGBTQ students of color at the National Multicultural Conference and Summit, appoint a diversity ombudsperson during adjudication and other discussions of the Committee, engage in diversity training at Ethics Committee meetings, and present on ethics and human rights at various national and international conferences.

United Nations
The APA UN/NGO Representation contributes bimonthly columns on issues at the UN, usually on a human rights topic, with implications for how psychologists can apply the information to their own work.

Committee on International Relations in Psychology
CIRP has addressed responsible, human rights based practices in international research collaboration through a brochure that is part of a series, “Going International” that offers guidance to the issues important for psychologists doing international work to consider.


Monitoring and protection of individuals’ human rights, including the human rights of psychologists engaged in professional activities

Scholars at Risk Network

APA is a member of the Scholars at Risk Network – a network that addresses human rights violations of academic scholars, and that publishes regular reports on academic freedom from a human rights perspective (see below for link and further description).

Research Ethics Office

The Research Ethics Office works with the Committee on Animal Research and Ethics to support and advocate for nonhuman animal researchers whose freedoms may be threatened or jeopardized by groups opposed to research with nonhuman animals.

Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP)

CIRP has drafted a resolution on the right for free circulation among scientists (the resolution endorses a fundamental principle of the International Council of Science (ICSU) on freedom and responsibility in science). This will be on the fall cross-cutting agenda and is projected to be submitted to Council in February, 2016.

CIRP: Note: the mission statement of CIRP includes specific reference to its role in promoting and protecting human rights with an APA perspective:

(h) monitor within the international context and take action in cases involving infringements of the rights of psychologists or abuse of psychological knowledge and techniques wherever these may occur, consistent with APA's Ethical Principles of Psychologists and with the Resolution Concerning Professional Ethics in Psychology (1976) of the International Union of Psychological Science, and apply psychological knowledge to the alleviation of psychological suffering attendant upon abuses of human rights ….

APA’s Topics pages section on the website includes one page titled Human Rights.  Resources provided there pertinent to this section include the following:

  • AAAS Science and Human Rights Program
    Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights & Law Program. 
    Addresses ethical, legal and human rights issues related to the conduct and application of science and technology.
  • Scholars at Risk
    Scholars at Risk undertakes activities on behalf of scholars still under threat in their home country-such as those suffering prosecution on improper or false charges or wrongfully imprisoned, as well as against widespread threats to an entire faculty, university or system.
  • Physicians for Human Rights
    PHR focuses on the critical role of forensic science, clinical medicine, and public health research in ensuring that human rights abuses are properly documented using the most rigorous scientific methodologies possible.

Advocacy to ensure that governments’ meet their obligations under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights

Public Interest Government Relations Office

The Public Interest Government Relations Office promotes the application of psychology to the fundamental problems of human welfare and promotes the advancement of the equitable and just treatment of all segments of society. PI-GRO advocates for U.S. federal domestic and international policies that advance and protect human rights. This work involves informing Congress, the White House, and federal agencies about applicable psychological science and practice.

PI-GRO provides psychologists and students opportunities to advocate for legislation and regulatory policies, brief members of Congress and their staff, comment on evolving legislation, testify at Congressional hearings, and to be trained to do advocacy and engage with policy makers.

Advocacy topics include four broad areas:

  • Advancing international human rights
    -Advocate for the U.S. ratification of UN Human Rights Conventions (e.g. children CRC, individuals with disabilities CRPD, women’s rights CEDAW)

    -Protect LGBT rights internationally

    -Support international women’s rights, including protections against human trafficking and violence
  • Advocating for Civil Rights
    Increase voting rights and civic participation and reduce abuses of civil rights by law enforcement and immigration authorities (e.g., increasing equity based-policing, reducing racial profiling, and advocating for humane immigrant detention policies)
    -Promote LGBT civil rights (domestic priorities include adoption/foster care, employment, marriage)

    -Support criminal justice reforms (e.g., increase in mental health diversion, ending solitary confinement)

    -Support the rights of women (e.g., domestic violence prevention, employment anti-discrimination)
  • Promoting the Right to Health – generating conditions in which everyone can be as healthy as possible and attain a high standard of health (WHO)
    -Expansion of programs to increase the access of all segments of society to quality healthcare, especially policies that benefit disadvantaged ethnic minority communities, older Americans, low-income children and families, LGBT individuals, individuals affected by HIV, individuals with disabilities, and women

    Eliminate health disparities by age, disability, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation and gender identity
    -Reduce negative social determinants of health and structural barriers to health
  • Reducing inequality
    -Advance policies that reduce economic inequality (e.g., minimum wage, paid sick leave)

    -Ensure programs that disproportionately benefit low income populations are protected (e.g., child care, Social Security, Unemployment, TANF)

United Nations: see below.

Promoting the contributions of psychology and psychologists to human rights promotion and protection.

The implementation group for the petition resolution prohibiting psychologists’ participation in illegal detainee settings recommended that “APA include a focus on human rights among its priorities and encourage APA’s work to reflect societal leadership in the promotion of human rights through research, practice, education, science, and policy initiatives, including collaboration with other professional societies and human rights organizations.”  In spring 2011, Public Interest Directorate staff brought the recommendation to BAPPI. BAPPI appointed a working group which has had as its primary activity proposing conference programs at the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 APA Annual Conventions, the 2012 and 2014 SPSSI (Division 9) Biennial Conferences, the 2013 and 2015 SCRA (Division 27) Biennial Conferences, and the 2012 International Congress of Psychology.  In addition, BAPPI sought recommendations from APA Boards and Committees, and the Divisions of Social Justice in 2012.

AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition
APA is a member of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, which is a network of scientific associations, professional societies, academies, and other formal networks of scientists, engineers and health professionals that recognize a role for science and technology, scientists and engineers in efforts to realize human rights.  The APA Public Interest Directorate was represented by Clinton W. Anderson, PhD, Associate Executive Director, Public Interest, and Director, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns Office, in the planning of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.   When the coalition was launched in January 2009, APA formally joined with one representative from the Public Interest Directorate and one representative from the Science Directorate, currently Anju Khubchandani, MSW, Director, Disabilities Issues Office, and Sangeeta Panicker, PhD, Office on Research ethics, respectively.

Cross-cutting agenda items seeking information regarding human rights activities of APA boards and committees and recommendations regarding human rights initiatives for the AAAS Coalition were considered by Boards and Committees in 2009.  In 2011, a focus group was held with APA members on Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to the benefits of scientific progress, as it applies to psychology.

Ms. Khubchandani is working on a bibliography that illustrates the contributions of psychology to human rights.  This document is currently being circulated to other psychologists involved in the Coalition and/or human rights work for further input and refinement.

United Nations
The APA UN/NGO Representation engages in educational and advocacy work at the United Nations to bring a human-centered, psychology-informed perspective to UN deliberations and decision making in a number of UN-NGO committees addressing areas relevant to human-rights areas including women, aging, violence, children and families. The APA UN/NGO Representation also engages with the UN Human Rights Committee.

Public Interest Directorate

The mission of the APA is to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.  The mission of the Public Interest Directorate is to apply psychology to the fundamental problems of human welfare and social justice and the promotion of equitable and just treatment of all segments of society through education, training and public policy.  Though not explicitly employing the language of promoting and protecting human rights, the work of the Public Interest Directorate and its individual offices does implicitly advance human rights.


Resources provided at APA Human Rights Topic page pertinent to this section:

Policy development

Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest

At its spring 2015 meeting, BAPPI decided that it would focus its initiative on the development of policy for APA on human rights.  As a way to gather relevant input, Gary Harper, PhD, BAPPI member, and Clinton Anderson, led a roundtable discussion on human rights policy for psychology at the 2015 SCRA Biennial Conference. Input from this consultation with members and other psychologists will be considered by BAPPI as it decides the scope and content of human rights policy that it will develop for APA’s consideration.

Committee on International Relations in Psychology

CIRP is developing a policy for adoption by APA on the free circulation of scientists and adherence to this principle as a fundamental aspect of the human rights of scientists.

Public education

APA launched a web page on human rights in 2012.