Research into the documentation of human rights violations honoured in the 2018 Newton Prize

Date: 04/12/2018

A project jointly funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the National Commission for Scientific & Technological Research in Chile (CONICYT) has been awarded the Chair’s Award in this year’s Newton Prize.

‘Documenting the past for a more peaceful future’ received the final Newton Prize of the evening, at a special Awards ceremony held at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London.

Ananya Jahanara Kabir
Professor Vikki Bell, Goldsmiths University of London (right) and Dr Oriana Bernasconi, Alberto Hurtado University (left).

Led by Professor Vikki Bell, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Dr Oriana Bernasconi, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Alberto Hurtado University, Chile, the research team has shown how the act of documenting politically-motivated imprisonment, torture or execution is an important way of resisting human rights violations. It allows affected societies to appreciate – often for the first time – the depth and scale of the trauma suffered by their fellow citizens. This new line of research will support public policy and measures that help to move towards a more peaceful future.

The research project has shown how when undocumented, such politically-motivated actions are often met with denial, revisionism and impunity for those who commit them, threatening democracy, peaceful coexistence and human development. An international research team examined the case of Chile and the unprecedented documentation work undertaken by civil society organisations during the Pinochet dictatorship. Both for Colombia and Mexico, this research, virtually unexplored until now, is a decisive contribution to human rights movements.

Dr Oriana Bernasconi, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology said: Alberto Hurtado University, said: “The Newton Prize will enable the project’s findings to inform and provoke further conversations in other South American countries including Colombia and Mexico.

"The prize money will mean that we will be able to continue the work of considering how the registration of human rights violation is conducted and how it can be crucial for resisting the otherwise traceless practice of forced disappearance.”

Vikki Bell, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, said: “We’re thrilled to be awarded this Newton Prize and we were especially pleased to receive the Chair’s prize that looks for relevance on a global scale. To our minds, the award gives welcome recognition that arts, humanities and social science are crucial components of achieving development goals.

“Our project will now be able to extend to Colombia and to Mexico. Keeping the focus on how communities respond to the cruel practice of forced disappearance, how they record and maintain different sorts of registers remains our focus. There isn’t one blueprint for all situations of course but by sharing and reflecting on practices, ideas circulate and networks of solidarity extend.”

The Newton Prize recognises pioneering research and innovations that come from international partnerships between the UK and Newton Fund partner countries around the world. This year the Newton Prize focussed on partnerships between the UK and Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico.

The Chair’s Prize (of up to £200,000) is awarded to the project that has potential for broader impact with other developing countries.   

Gary Grubb, Associate Director of Programmes at the AHRC, said: “The Newton Prize recognises research based partnerships that help deliver life-changing outcomes for people in developing countries.

"We are delighted that the jury have chosen such an important AHRC-supported project for the Chairs Award which recognises its potential for wider regional and global impact.

"Over the last few years AHRC has funded researchers to work in over 70 developing countries to address some of the big global challenges of our time, and it only seems fitting that this project, which will help towards protecting fundamental human rights, should be recognised for such a prestigious Award. We would like to congratulate all those involved.”

Business Secretary Greg Clark said: “These prize winning international projects are uniting the brightest and best minds from across the globe to transform lives now and for generations to come. The Newton Prize and Newton Fund create, cultivate and celebrate these partnerships and I congratulate all the winners on their excellent work.”

The other four winning projects include:

  • Improving the lives of the Guarani people by saving the Atlantic Forest (awarded up to £200,000): this project between researchers at University College London and the Indigenous Work Centre in Brazil is helping the indigenous Guarani restore the Atlantic Forest in their territory. By drawing from Guarani ancestral agricultural knowledge and established agroforestry techniques, and by promoting a better understanding of the importance of indigenous peoples for environmental conservation, the team are supporting the preservation and restoration of the forest and improving the wellbeing of Guarani communities. The results of the project could also inform conservation efforts elsewhere.
  • Strengthening energy infrastructure to withstand extreme weather and natural disasters (awarded up to £200,000): scientists at the University of Manchester and University of Chile are using mathematical models to strengthen power systems in Chile and other countries vulnerable to environmental hazards, helping energy providers prevent or reduce wide-scale electricity outages. It will inform planning practices to help shape a robust, cost-effective and low-carbon Chilean transmission network. National and international networks developed through the project have built the capacity of researchers in the wider region, and the potential impact of this project could benefit countries affected by extreme weather and natural hazards worldwide.
  • Turning environmentally damaging coffee waste into electricity (awarded up to £98,327): researchers from the University of Surrey and University of Antioquia in Colombia have found that environmentally damaging coffee waste could be turned into electricity. They discovered that if they fed coffee waste to microbes, the tiny creatures would eat it, producing energy. This energy could then be captured in the form of electricity. The researchers are now developing small fuel cell devices, and they hope to engage with large coffee companies in Europe to adopt the same approach to treating their waste if used successfully in Colombia.
  • New drought resistant beans for sustainable food supply in Mexico (awarded up to £199,019): researchers from the University of Sheffield and the Institute of Biotechnology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico are developing bean varieties to combat drought-related crop losses. The researchers have potentially found out how to reduce bean water use by up to 40 percent, potentially saving up to three percent of Mexico’s entire agricultural water use. The project has the potential to secure a reduction in rural poverty, while improving bean yields and minimising fertiliser use will also benefit soils, reduce desertification and improve water quality.

For more information visit the Newton Fund website.

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