Science and human rights: a valuable perspective

The right to benefit from science raises questions about patents that restrict access to vaccines Copyright: Flickr/Gates Foundation

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Promoting a human rights approach to S&T advances will reinforce moves towards inclusive development. But implementation challenges remain.

There was a time when debates on the links between science and human rights focused on the plight of individual scientists, and in particular on their rights — both as humans and as intellectuals — to the freedom of expression.

In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, dissident scientists such as the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov became focal points for protests by the human rights movement in the West, keen to throw a spotlight on the harshness with which the government of the Soviet Union treated its critics.

Since then, the terrain of the science and human rights debate has expanded considerably. One direction has been the use of technology to provide evidence of human rights abuses — for example, the use by Amnesty International of sophisticated satellite imagery to document unlawful executions and the destruction of villages in conflicts in the Middle East and Sudan.

An equally significant trend, however, has been the growing interest in promoting the idea that enjoying the fruits of scientific knowledge is a basic human right, and in how this right can be implemented in the context of social and economic development.

Eyes on human rights

This week, we publish a series of articles highlighting emerging thinking about the potential impact of, and challenges faced by a human rights-based approach to the role of science in development.

In an overview article, S. Romi Mukherjee, senior lecturer at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and the University of Chicago Center in Paris, who was the editorial consultant on the project, outlines how a human rights-based approach intersects with debates over science and technology (S&T) and development.

In a complementary feature article, Jan Piotrowski talks to some of those who are seeking to implement this rights-based approach, particularly within UN agencies such as UNESCO and the Food and Agricultural Organization, as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Three opinion articles make the case for using a human rights approach in specific areas of science and the development agenda.

Bhavani R. V., director at the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in India, argues that such an approach can help safeguard the rights of vulnerable populations through a commitment to uphold scientific responsibility on a range of issues, from genetically modified crops to research on neglected diseases.

Simon Caney, professor of policy and international relations at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, outlines how a human rights framework can address the ethical issues raised by the challenges of climate change, and their implications for climate policy.

Jessica Wyndham, a human rights lawyer with the AAAS in the United States, discusses how a rights framework can be used to design, implement, monitor and evaluate development programmes, and argues that governments and other stakeholders are responsible for putting these principles into practice.

No easy answers

In a purely formal sense, a rights-based approach to science for development was established long ago. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in December 1948, contains an article affirming that everyone has the right "to share in scientific advancement and its benefits".

However, as with all such broadly worded declarations of intent, a large gap remains between the commitment and its implementation. Furthermore, there are no quick or easy answers to the questions raised by implementing the right to benefit from science.

How, for example, does it relate to intellectual property laws, explicitly established to place restrictions and terms on who can access the fruits of innovations such as vaccines?

Given that the idea of universal human rights is largely a product of the European Enlightenment, to what extent are its assumptions and conclusions valid in a non-Western context built on different cultural values?

What constitutes a "misuse" of science, and who is qualified to make such a judgement?

And, perhaps most importantly, what does a human rights-based approach to science add to efforts that are already under way to inject science into the development process?

A moral imperative

What becomes clear from the contributions to this Spotlight is that the issues raised by a rights-based approach to science in development are not particularly new, nor even unique to this approach. Many of them are being widely addressed without necessarily invoking an appeal to human rights.

But it is also clear that a rights-based approach adds a moral dimension to these debates that can help increase the pressure on institutions and governments — as well as occasionally on individuals — to act responsibly, for example, in the interests of sustainable development.

And where the moral imperative is implicit in efforts to protect and promote wellbeing against other motives, such as private profit, the question becomes how to reinforce this imperative by making the human rights approach more explicit.

It can, for example, provide a lever that critics of government or institutional policies can use to legitimate demands for greater public access to the benefits of science, and for protection against what can be seen as its abuses (for example, the development of chemical or biological weapons).

No one pretends that a rights-based approach offers instant solutions. There are many other factors to consider, in particular political opposition — for example, on patent rights — from those who feel that their interests are threatened.

Nevertheless, as our coverage demonstrates, such an approach has the potential to help secure an inclusive, science-based model of sustainable development that assures both a commitment to the full beneficial use of science, and protection against its potential misuse.

As such, it can only be welcomed.

David Dickson

This article is part of a Spotlight on Linking human rights, science and development.