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Right to Science: FAQs


What is a “human right”?

Human rights are fundamental entitlements inherent to all human beings, regardless of nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. Derived from the mere fact of being human, human rights are guaranteed by international and often domestic law, including in the form of treaties and customary international law.

Where does the right to the benefits of scientific progress come from?

The right to the benefits of scientific progress was first recognized internationally in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) and later as Article 15 in the legally binding International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (1966).  The right to the benefits of scientific progress is also mentioned in a number of other regional and international human rights instruments and statements (Read more).

Is this right aspirational?

This right is not merely an aspirational goal, a matter of generosity, privilege, or an objective to be achieved. Just as governments are expected to adopt measures to respect the rights to freedom of expression and a fair trial, so too are they obligated to uphold the right to the benefits of scientific progress, including through legislative measures and ensuring redress for those whose rights are violated.

Which countries explicitly recognize the right?

Most. By September 2008, the ICESCR had been ratified by 159 states, from Cambodia to Canada, Jamaica to Japan, Rwanda to Russia. Among the few countries not to have ratified it are Belize, Cyprus, South Africa and the United States. Those countries that have ratified the ICESCR are legally bound to protect the right to the benefits of scientific progress.

Are countries that have not ratified the ICESCR bound to protect the right?

There exist four circumstances in which a state that has not ratified the ICESCR may be obligated to respect the right to the benefits of scientific progress.  First, any state that has made legal provisions for this right in its domestic law, for example in its constitution, is bound to protect it. Second, to the extent that the rights contained in the UDHR are considered to represent customary international law, all states are bound to protect them. (Customary international law consists of traditional common rules or practice that have become an intrinsic part of the accepted and expected conduct of states and are treated as a legal requirement.) Third, as members of the UN, states are bound to respect fundamental human rights as set out in the UDHR. Fourth, states that have signed but not ratified the ICESCR, such as the United States, are bound not to violate the “object and purpose” of the treaty, including in relation to the right to the benefits of scientific progress.

What is the nature of governments' obligations to realize Article 15?

Governments must respect (not interfere with the exercise of the right), protect (ensure that private actors do not interfere with the exercise of the right), fulfill (create the conditions under which the right can be realized) and promote the right to the benefits of scientific progress. Governments must also progressively implement the right through a transparent, flexible, and reasonable plan to advance the fulfillment of the right within their maximum available resources.  Such a plan must take into account those with the greatest need.  Governments must also monitor the protection of the right (based on “Legal Project Info Sheet no.1,” National Economic and Social Rights Initiative).

Why is this right important?

The right to the benefits of scientific progress is a right unto itself, requiring, among other things, that states take steps for “the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science,” that they “respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research,” and encourage and develop “international contacts and cooperation.” In addition, the right is a necessary prerequisite for the realization of many other human rights that depend on access to and application of science and technology, including the rights to health, food, water, and a clean environment. As such, the realization of this right is key to addressing inequality and marginalization caused by inequitable access to basic and vital advances in science and technology.

As a scientist, what does Article 15 do for me?

Article 15 places obligations on your government to encourage, facilitate and not to interfere with your work as a scientist, except as demanded by ethical and legal standards. As such, and given the specific provisions of Article 15, you or your scientific association might use Article 15, for example, as the basis for demanding adequate funding for R&D, public awareness of science-based issues and opportunities, and the removal of unreasonable travel restrictions on scientists.  In addition, as an internationally recognized human right, Article 15 can serve as an organizing and messaging framework, a point of connection among scientists and scientific associations, and a basis for engagement with colleagues and institutions regionally and internationally.

As a scientist, does Article 15 restrict what I can do?

Like professional ethics standards, Article 15 embodies principles that are intended to inform the conduct of science. At its core, Article 15 requires that science be used as an instrument for human benefit.  It necessitates that the process of doing scientific research and the development of applications from that science be consistent with fundamental human rights principles. These principles include: nondiscrimination and equal treatment, participation and transparency in decision-making, and free and informed consent to participation in research.

How can the fulfillment of Article 15 be measured?

Indicators are a standard and accepted method of measuring fulfillment of rights. Indeed, thanks to the work of the United Nations, states, and human rights, scientific and other organizations indicators have been developed to measure progress on many human rights, including the rights to life, to non-discrimination and to health. In the case of the right to the benefits of scientific progress, however, it is first necessary for the United Nations to identify the precise content of the right and to establish the standards according to which appropriate indicators can be developed. This process has yet to begin, because of the UN’s relative lack of attention to Article 15. The informed and sustained involvement of scientists in conceptualizing and giving practical effect to Article 15 are vital steps towards the realization of this right, and will ultimately lead to the development of indicators. As an example – if the right is taken to require states to respect the freedom of scientists to form professional associations that work on behalf of their members, an indicator of the realization of this right may be the proliferation of scientific associations, and the absence of reports and cases of interference in their work.