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Human Rights in Codes of Ethics of Scientific and Professional Societies

The Science and Human Rights Coalition’s Working Group on Ethics and Human Rights aims to raise the visibility of human rights principles as part of the practice of science and its applications. One new initiative by the Working Group is development of this statement that encourages professional societies to link their ethics codes/guidelines to human rights principles.

A Statement of the Ethics, Science, and Human Rights Working Group of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition 

Scientists, engineers, and health professionals have an important responsibility and role to play in promoting individual and societal public health, safety and wellbeing. Integral to this responsibility is the realization of human rights for all people.  International human rights documents make this connection clear both by their focus on specific areas of concern, such as protection from torture, [1] the right to privacy, the right to Internet freedom, and more broadly in their explicit recognition of the right of everyone to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” [2] This right is also a central aspect of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. [3] How well that right is realized will depend, in large part, on the capacity and willingness of the relevant technical communities to contribute their know-how and skills.  While the efforts of individual scientists, engineers and health professionals should be encouraged, it is through their professional societies that such efforts can be organized and sustained in a way that can set the tone for their members.  

One way to approach this challenge is for the scientific, engineering, and health professional societies to incorporate human rights in their codes of ethics, or similar ethics statements. Although each society can work through the details of how it would accomplish this task, a clear statement expressing a commitment to promoting the principles enshrined in international human rights instruments, including the practice of human rights among their members could be an initial step. In that spirit, we offer some language that may be useful to consider:

“The [name of society] affirms its commitment to the practice of [discipline] consistent with promoting the human rights of all people, including members of their profession.  The [name of society] will strive to use the knowledge and skills embedded in our discipline to advance the cause of human rights worldwide, according to the highest ethical standards – respectful of the right of people to benefit from the work our discipline has to offer.”

For examples of how some societies have incorporated human rights into their codes of ethics, please see "Intersections of Science, Ethics and Human Rights: The Question of Human Subjects Protection," specifically Part IV beginning on page 18. 

[1] Article 7, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
[2] Article 15, International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
[3] Preamble (w), Articles 4, 9, 15, 20, 21, 25, 26, 32, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities