Skip to main content

Starter Kit: Making the Connection Between Science and Human Rights

Helping Your Scientific Society Promote Human Rights: Science & Human Rights: Making the Connection

The relationship between human rights and the scientific enterprise is one of long standing.

First, scientists require the same rights to health and education, freedom from arbitrary detention and exile, the right to equality before the law, and all the other inalienable rights essential to human life that all people do.

Second, in order for scientific inquiry to flourish, there must be basic freedoms and rights in place for the scientists pursuing their research.

Third, in order for human rights to flourish, the benefits of scientific inquiry must be made available to all the world’s peoples. This right is articulated in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Upholding this right, at a minimum, means:

  • Making scientific benefits (e.g., medicines, communication technologies and renewable energy) accessible to all sectors of society;
  • Identifying funding and research priorities that reflect societies’ needs;
  • Ensuring quality science education at all levels;
  • Removing barriers to scientific freedom; and
  • Encouraging international cooperation and the free flow of knowledge.

Having received little attention by either the human rights or scientific communities, much work still needs to be done to conceptualize and give practical meaning to the right to enjoy the benefits of science.  What is clear, however, is that this right has the potential to make a significant contribution to science policy and practice.

Fourth, while the primary responsibility for the realization of human rights falls on governments, individuals as well as private corporations and non-governmental actors, including scientists and scientific associations, have general responsibilities toward their community at large and, at a minimum, must respect the human rights of others. However, going beyond these general human obligations, scientists, both individually and collectively, generally share a strong sense of responsibility regarding the health and well-being of people and the planet. As concerned members of the human community, scientists have made vital contributions to improvements in the human condition. There are many reasons for viewing those responsibilities in terms of human rights, including:

  • Human rights are necessary in order for scientists to pursue and disseminate their research, resulting in maximum benefit to the public. Many of the core principles of human rights, such as freedoms of opinion, expression, association, communication, and movement are intrinsic values to the scientific enterprise and are necessary for science to advance. Scientists doing research and educating others on their findings benefit when these and other human rights are respected and protected. Scientists, like anyone, require the rights to health and education, freedom from arbitrary detention and exile, the right to equality before the law, and all the other inalienable rights essential to human life. More information on the Welfare of Scientists.
  • For science to progress, it is essential that claims to the truth be based on empirical testing and not on ideological or political authority. Scientific research depends at its core on the constant testing of ideas, theories, or dogmas. These two pillars of the everyday work of scientists can put them and their research at odds with autocratic and repressive governments and can make them targets in human rights atrocities.
  • Efforts to promote and support human rights need science and the skills and expertise of scientists. Over the course of several decades, human rights practitioners have come to recognize the need for more and better tools and techniques to monitor human rights and document and report violations. Whether to strengthen traditional human rights work or tackle new capabilities, such as early-warning and prevention, science and technology have much to contribute to efforts to enhance human rights work. More information about Science-Human Rights Collaborations; join “On-Call” Scientists working with human rights organizations.
  • Human rights are the closest thing disparate human societies have to a unifying global set of values. The scientific endeavor is inherently international, requiring the sharing of knowledge and information, and collaboration across borders. Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, noted, “Human rights are the closest thing we have to a shared values system for the world. We should take every opportunity to see them not simply as shared goals, but as legal obligations and policy making tools [that] can assist those charged with making complex decisions–whether in the areas of trade, migration, the environment, security or public health.” Interview with Mary Robinson.
  • Human rights will only be realized when scientists join other communities calling on their governments to meet their human rights obligations. Governments will take their human rights responsibilities seriously when they encounter demands to do so from their citizens. Scientists, as a highly respected segment of societies throughout the world, can help by bringing their respected voices to global demands that governments be held to account to their human rights duties.

Robinson, Mary. “The value of a human rights perspective in health and foreign policy.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization [online]. 2007, v. 85, no. 3, pp. 241-242.