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Science and Technology “Vital” to Developing Human Rights in Americas, AAAS Tells Panel

Efforts to address a range of human rights issues across the Americas—from access to clean water and health care to political restrictions on research—will benefit from the close involvement of science and technology, AAAS told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In testimony before the commission in Washington, D.C., three AAAS experts urged the panel to join scientific and civil society groups and others in working to define and develop the long-standing but long-neglected right to the benefits of scientific progress. Members of the commission appeared to welcome that invitation, suggesting that they hoped for a long-term dialogue with AAAS and other science organizations.

“Human rights promotion and protection depends on scientific information in a number of fields,” commission Chair Dinah Shelton said after the hearing. “Is the drinking water of a community safe or has it been polluted? Whose bones are in the field and how did the people die? Was a given individual tortured? Who are the parents of a child? Those are just a few of the issues in which the commission needs scientific evidence.”

Jorge Colón

Science and technology are crucial to solving challenges in the Americas, said Jorge Colón, president of the AAAS Caribbean Division. “The development of this scientific capacity is strongly linked to the assurance that the peoples of the region can enjoy the benefits of science. In order to use science to solve problems that affect them, people need science education and… higher levels of scientific literacy.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is an organ of the Organization of American States, with responsibility for promoting and defending human rights in the Americas. The AAAS testimony on 25 October marked the first time since the commission’s founding in 1959 that it had heard testimony on the right to the benefits of scientific progress.

Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, called the commission’s invitation “an honor,” and suggested it could expand AAAS engagement in Latin America. “I anticipate that our testimony will open doors for us in the Americas as we seek collaborators in both the sciences and human rights networks in that part of the world,” he said.

The testimony was the outgrowth of an April 2010 statement by the AAAS Board of Directors, pledging to support involvement by scientists in the effort to define “with greater clarity the meaning of the right… and how best to implement the right in practice.”

Subsequently, the AAAS Caribbean Division held a conference in Puerto Rico in the fall of 2010 on the right to the benefits of scientific progress. In addition, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition is conducting a series of focus groups with scientific and engineering membership organizations to define this right. Thus far, about 15 associations have participated, from the American Psychological Association to the Astronomical Society of America.

The idea that people have a right to the benefits of scientific progress is not well-known, but it is has long been established in international treaties and agreements.

It was codified in 1948 when the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man was adopted in Bogotá, Colombia, by the Ninth International Conference of American States. Later that year, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with Article 27 asserting that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

In 1966, the UN adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a binding treaty which recognizes the right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” Since then, the right has received little attention. However, beginning in 2007, UNESCO initiated a process to define the right and how it might be applied.

In their testimony to the IAHCR, the AAAS experts suggested that the right would work in concert with other established human rights to promote the public’s health and well-being and to protect research from political interference.

“Science and technology are vital to the realization of human rights, not only the rights to health, food and an adequate standard of living, but to education, freedom of information and expression, and even the right to a fair trial,” said Jessica Wyndham, associate director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.

In her testimony, Wyndham listed “core elements” of the right to the benefits of scientific progress:

  • a strong focus on the needs of “marginalized and vulnerable” populations;
  • the creation of a participatory and enabling environment, including strong science education;
  • the strengthening of international cooperation and assistance in science;
  • the need to “protect against violations of human rights caused by the use or the misuse of science and technology”; and
  • recognition that scientific freedom is “vital to the development of a robust and productive scientific community.”

Both Wyndham and Colón, a professor of chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras, cited a variety of examples that apply to those dimensions of the right.

For example, Wyndham said, chagas remains a “neglected disease” in research funding, even though some 8 million people in the Americas contract the disease every year and it kills more people than any other parasite-borne disease. World Health Organization data show that people living in Latin America’s rural areas have a lower rate of access to improved water sources than rural people elsewhere in the world. And she cited a 2008 study showing that Latin American students, reflecting on their science and mathematics education, “are among the most dissatisfied students in the world.”

Added Colón: “Latin America is an area rich in biodiversity but threatened by the challenges posed by fast economic development and population growth, global climate change, economic injustice, the need for new sources of clean energy and vaccines against infectious diseases, and discrimination against marginalized and vulnerable communities based on race, gender, ethnicity, or language.”

Both speakers said that government can pose a range of threats that block or limit the right to the benefits of science. For example, Colón cited instances in which Latin American scientists have been harassed for research that explored death squads or that questioned government economic reporting.

But sometimes a government’s opposition is more subtle. A government might compromise the right when visa policy makes it difficult or impossible for foreign researchers to attend conferences or participate in education programs, Colón said. And, he added, a low level of government financial support for research across much of Latin America “is an indirect threat that greatly limits the development of the right to the benefits of scientific progress in the Americas.”

Poverty itself is a threat to the right to the benefits of scientific progress. Colón stressed that unless science and technology are broadly available and accessible, the right will struggle to advance.

His testimony cited one hopeful template for advancing the right to science in the region: An ongoing project in which scientists from Haiti, Puerto Rico, Canada, Rwanda, and the United States are working to build Haitian science capacity in the aftermath of last year’s deadly earthquake. A series of workshops and meetings organized by the Caribbean Division and the International Office at AAAS, along with other partners, in September released a roadmap called “Science for Haiti.

In response, Commissioner María Silvia Guillén suggested that the Haiti roadmap “could be a point of departure for other countries in the region that are in situations of much vulnerability and extreme poverty.” The right to the benefits of scientific progress, she added, “gives us so many tools and indispensable elements for the development of our people.”

Mark S. Frankel and Jessica Wyndham

Still, the commission members who heard the testimony raised several questions about how the right would be defined and implemented. For example, Shelton asked, might a public clinic be obligated to provide advanced reproductive therapy to an impoverished couple? And, she asked, does human cloning qualify as scientific progress? [The AAAS Board of Directors has endorsed a legal ban on efforts to clone human embryos for reproduction.] José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, the commission’s first vice chair, questioned whether the right to science may at times conflict with intellectual property rights.

Frankel responded that a dialogue between the commission and AAAS could address such questions. “We think that, working together, we can overcome some of the barriers and move this right forward,” he said.

Both Wyndham and Colón said the commission could play a critical role in defining and advancing the right. Wyndham recommended that it could recognize nations’ obligations to meet the right; join the international process to define the right; and prepare a thematic report on the right and its challenges, with particular focus on the Americas.

Shelton agreed that a continuing engagement could be valuable. “We look forward to… continuing this dialogue,” she said, “because we are going to need scientific input on many of the issues that we are dealing with.”

More Resources

Read about the AAAS Caribbean Division’s 2010 conference that explored the links between science and human right.

Learn more about the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program at AAAS.

Read the AAAS Board of Directors’ 2010 statement on defining and developing the right to the benefits of scientific progress.

Read the full comments and testimony by Mark S. Frankel; Jessica Wyndham; and Jorge Colón (in Spanish and English).

Watch a one-hour video of the AAAS testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. [The video includes portions both in English and in Spanish.]