April 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 4

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Improving Human Rights Through Science


Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner
for Human Rights spoke at the January 2010
AAAS meeting and was on a plenary session
at the 2004 ASA Annual Meeting.
Photo courtesy of AAAS.

In December 2008, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) celebrated its 60th anniversary. Soon after, scientific disciplines—under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—launched a new Science and Human Rights Coalition (SHRC), of which ASA is a founding member (see January 2009 Footnotes, p. 2). ASA staff and representatives from other science disciplines, helped conceptualize the Coalition’s mission and map out its goals and activities. (See details in the November 28, 2008, Science magazine editorial co-authored by sociologist Mona Younis.)

Beginning in early 2009, ASA Public Affairs Director Lee Herring became co-chair of one of five SHRC working groups. The group, "Service to the Scientific Community," aims to raise the scientific community’s awareness of human rights issues and to enhance the well being of people around the world through access to science (e.g., science education, science-based products, technology, processes), in accordance with Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

"Among other products, our working group expects to develop a guide book to assist scientific societies in becoming engaged in promoting human rights more proactively and effectively," said Herring, who has engaged ASA’s new Section on Human Rights, particularly its chair, Brian Gran, of Case Western University, in the AAAS effort since the beginning of the Section’s formation and formal recognition by ASA’s governance structure.

Years in the Making

While AAAS launched the Coalition in January 2009, the initiative had actually been several years in the making.

In July 2005, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program (SHRP) held a two-day conference of scientific and academic associations and human rights organizations to explore ways in which the scientific community could become more directly engaged in human rights. Participants confirmed the need for a network of scientists engaged in human rights, endorsed the formation of a Science and Human Rights Coalition, and affirmed AAAS as its natural home.

The following month, the ASA Council reasserted the association’s commitment to human rights and avowed the responsibility of the organization and discipline to supporting the basic civil rights and political freedom of all people—principles embraced by the UDHR (see www.asanet.org/advocacy/statement_on_human_rights.cfm).

Eventually, in 2007, SHRP began pursuing the formation of a Science and Human Rights Coalition, and convened a series of planning meetings to lay the groundwork. With participation from more than 20 associations, including ASA, these meetings led to the development of the Coalition’s mission and goals, production of key foundational documents, and the creation of the five working groups. These working groups are: Welfare of Scientists, Science Ethics and Human Rights, Service to the Scientific Community, Service to the Human Rights Community, and Education and Information Resources.

Today, the Coalition is a network of 45 organizations and more than 40 affiliated scientists who recognize a role for science and scientists in human rights. Representatives from each organization contribute to the Coalition’s efforts through participation in one of the working groups.

Joint Initiative

In addition to the working groups’ individual activities, the Coalition membership as a whole is pursuing a Joint Initiative, focusing on the human right to "enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications," which is detailed in Article 15 of ICESCR.

Internationally recognized in the UDHR in 1948, and subsequently adopted as part of the internationally binding ICESCR in 1966, the right to the benefits of scientific progress remains one of the most unfamiliar and confounding in the international human rights framework. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) initiated a process in 2007 to elucidate the meaning of the right, leading to the July 2009 adoption of the "Venice Statement," which outlines its core content. The "Venice Statement" also calls upon the scientific community, among others, to contribute to the further clarification and promotion of the right, and the monitoring of its implementation.

Through the Joint Initiative, SHRC aims to: increase knowledge among scientific associations about the existence, significance and potential applications of this human right; engage scientific associations and other key institutions in efforts to realize this right; and leverage this right to accomplish the objectives of SHRC’s working groups. The first stage of SHRC’s Joint Initiative is underway, as each working group is determining how Article 15 is relevant to its area of activity and developing projects aimed at contributing to the clarification and promotion of the right to the benefits of scientific progress.

"Relative to Article 15, the Service to the Scientific Community Working Group plans to engage individual scientific associations from across the life, physical, social, behavioral, and engineering sciences to determine what barriers exist and what measures need to be adopted to realize the right in practice," said Herring.

This information will contribute to the efforts of the Service to the Human Rights Community Working Group, which plans to develop indicators for measuring government compliance with its obligation to ensure the right to the benefits of scientific progress is realized.

While a great deal of work remains to be done in clarifying the meaning of the right to the benefits of scientific progress, some practical examples that might occur include:

In the meantime, this first stage of the Joint Initiative will result in a presentation of findings and recommendations to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in December 2011.

Further information about the Joint Initiative is available at shr.aaas.org/coalition/AreasofActivity/Joint_Initiative.html and additional resources relating to this article are available at shr.aaas.org/Programs/program_article15.htm.

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