“Back and Forth: Between Criminology and Human Rights – Between Science and Activism”

Professor Sonja Snacken, Vrije Universiteit Brusse

Combining science and activism is an uneasy task. Aren’t scientists supposed to be “neutral” and “objective”? Is your research not at risk of being biased by your values ?

For many years, I tried to solve this dilemma by distinguishing between my work as an empirical criminologist studying the Belgian criminal justice and prison systems, and my engagement as a human rights activist aiming at improving the situation of persons caught in those systems. But over the years, the intertwining only became stronger.

My activism was increasingly translated into penal and prison standard setting at national and European level, where my knowledge as an empirical researcher proved invaluable. Conversely, remaining a critical scholar required to look objectively into the importance of values in penality in Belgium, Europe and beyond, including the place of dignity and human rights, but also to empirically assess the impact of such values on the reality of the systems they aim to transform.