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AAAS Human Rights Program
Honors One of its Own
To mark its third annual Human Rights Day on 10 December, AAAS honored Irving A. Lerch, a physicist and, "tireless human rights advocate," according to Audrey Chapman, director of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program.
"Irving has a passion and eloquence for the issues and a keen understanding of how to effect change," Chapman said. "He truly is a role model for the scientific community and an inspiration for all of us working at the intersection of science and human rights."
Until 2002, Lerch had served for six years as member and then chair of AAAS's Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, which advises AAAS's human rights and scientific responsibility and ethics programs. On behalf of scientists whose rights were being abrogated, most often by their own governments, letters from Lerch went out to hundreds of national leaders. In his missives, as head of a committee that represents "the world's largest federation of scientific organizations," Lerch pointed out the laws that were being broken, and demanded investigations into the wrongs perpetrated against a given scientist.
"As scientists, we can have enormous impact," says Lerch, director of International Affairs for the American Physical Society. "There is not question in my mind that prisoners have been released due to the active intervention of the scientific community."
The AAAS Science and Human Rights Program was established in 1977 to give scientists a way to help their colleagues around the world whose human rights are threatened or violated. The program continues to mobilize members of the scientific community to speak for their colleagues in need around the world. Another key aspect of the program focuses on bringing the tools and knowledge of science to bear on the field of human rights. Efforts coordinated by AAAS staff have led to the identification of people massacred during civil disturbances in Argentina and Guatemala, and to large-scale data analyses of human rights abuses in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and other nations.
Lerch points to 1945and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasakias the beginning of the era in which scientists began to take a serious interest in promoting human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights followed on 10 December 1948. In the decades that followed, new movements began, many of them with the extensive participation of scientists, Lerch notes. And in 1976 the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility was founded, as was the Moscow chapter of Helsinki Watch, the organization that eventually became Human Rights Watch.
The Soviet scientists whose predicaments had led other scientists to take up their cause in the 1970s and 1980s were well known to the international community of scientists, Lerch says. Now the scientific community is being called on to help colleagues who have not yet made their mark.
"The times are much different," Lerch says. "We used to have famous prisoners of conscience who needed our help. Now the scientists are either young people, or scientists who are not well known outside their own countries."
Lerch graduated from West Point and served in the 101st Airborne Division before starting graduate school at the University of Chicago. He obtained a doctorate in medical physics in 1969. He went on to work for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, to which he had been "seconded" by the Energy Research and Development Agency, the predecessor to the Department of Energy. He returned to the United States, where he taught as a professor at New York University, heading the Department of Radiation Oncology Physics from 1976 through 1992. While on sabbatical from NYU, Lerch organized the international program of the American Physical Society (APS) and became director of the program after retiring from NYU in 1993.
In addition to serving as chair of AAAS's Science Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, Lerch has a member of the UNESCO Physics Action Council and Chair of its Working Group on Telecommunications Networks for Science, Board Member of the American Center for Physics and member of the Advisory Board of the International Science Foundation. He is currently administering a program to survey and improve science education in the Central Asian and Caucuses Nations of the former Soviet Union and is helping UNESCO develop a university reconstruction program for Iraq.
5 December 2003