The field of "human rights psychology" is in its infancy. In 2009, APA created a vision statement that includes a section about the organization serving as "an effective champion of the application of psychology to promote human rights, health, well-being and dignity."

"Psychology and human rights have had very separate and distinct histories, and there has not been a clear connection between the two," says Clinton Anderson, PhD, associate executive director of the Public Interest Directorate and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Office director. "APA is trying to clarify the connection."

Although milestone documents proclaiming individual human rights can be traced back to the 13th century with the Magna Carta, the modern understanding of the term originated in response to World War II, says Gabe Twose, PhD, a senior legislative and federal affairs officer at APA who focuses on human rights. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes 30 articles describing the rights of all human beings.

While the declaration provides a general framework of human rights, the practical distinction between these rights and other concepts such as civil rights, public interest and social justice can be murky, Twose explains. "The definition of what constitutes human rights is a complicated, contested topic," he says.

Despite this ambiguity, "do no harm" is an ethical obligation for all psychologists — which encompasses the protection of a patient or research subject's human rights. "All psychologists should keep in mind the dignity, humanity and connectedness of all people during their work," Twose says.

To read more about the area, see the special issue about human rights in APA's Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, February 2015 issue.