Linking science and human rights: Facts and figures

ICTs and other tools can help realize the right of access to scientific knowledge Copyright: Flickr/IntelFreePress

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

S. Romi Mukherjee outlines human rights-based approaches to science, technology and development, and what they mean for policy and practice.

A human rights-based approach to science, technology and development seeks to place a concern for human rights at the heart of how the international community engages with urgent global challenges. It entered the UN's lexicon in 1997, with Kofi Annan's call for human rights to be integrated into the UN's mandates, management, and methodologies for development and international cooperation.

The UN Development Programme characterises this approach as one that "leads to better and more sustainable outcomes by analyzing and addressing the inequalities, discriminatory practices and unjust power relations which are often at the heart of development problems. It puts the international human rights entitlements and claims of the people (the 'right-holders') and the corresponding obligations of the state (the 'duty-bearer') in the centre of the national development debate, and it clarifies the purpose of capacity development". [1]

However, there is no universally accepted definition of human rights-based approaches. [2] This does not necessarily mean the concept lacks focus or substance. On the contrary, it provides a framework for confronting important global issues — from gender biases to food and water safety to misuses of science and technology — grounded in a set of principles, developed through international consensus (see box 1), that clarify the relationship between 'rights holders' and 'duty bearers'. [3]  

Dryland farmer

Gender equality and food security are among the issues addressed by human rights principles


Many international policy scholars argue that rights-based approaches help to re-orient NGOs and the UN system away from professionalised philanthropy and towards capacity-building; that they promise sustainable interventions and reduce dependency on aid; and that they help to redefine the responsibilities of governmental authorities, local actors, NGOs, and the UN system. [4]

For science and technology, the approach requires scientists to go beyond knowing how their work relates to human rights, and demands that they strive to secure and affirm human rights through the knowledge they produce. For instance, a rights-based approach to virus studies — in potentially creating an ethical framework that guides research as it evolves — would not only push the frontiers of medicine and seek medical benefits, but actively guard against the potential to create new biological weapons. There is a question, here, of whether this is the responsibility of virologists (e.g. by contributing to dual-use debates) or the scientific community in general.

A human rights perspective also affirms that access to scientific information is a human right (Article 27(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, see box 1). [5] This implies that the benefits of scientific advancement should be shared openly, free from restrictions by social groups, corporate entities or states. Above all, a rights-based approach to science seeks to create the conditions for equitable participation in the global science community and fair access to scientific information and goods.

In a general sense, a human rights-based approach recognises that science is a socially organised, human activity which is value-laden and shaped by organisational structures and procedures. It asks how governments and other stakeholders can create and implement policies to ensure safety, health and livelihoods; to include people's needs and priorities in development and environmental strategies; and to ensure they participate in decision-making that affects their lives and resources.

BOX 1: Documents that include or centre around human rights-based approach to science, development, and technology, and their key principles:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 27): affirms everyone's right to participate in and benefit from scientific advances, and be protected from scientific misuses.

The right to the benefits of science comes under the domain of 'culture', so is usually examined from a cultural rights perspective. However, the World Commission of the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), an independent advisory body of UNESCO, is assessing the implications of Article 27 in relationship to science and technology ethics. [5, 6]  

UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers — 1974 (article 4): affirms that all advances in scientific and technological knowledge should be solely geared towards securing well-being for global citizens, and calls upon member states to develop the necessary protocol and policies to monitor and secure this objective. [7]

Countries are asked to show that science and technology is integrated into policies that aim to ensure a more humane and just society. This is monitored by the member-states of UNESCO and through UNESCO's bi-annual meeting of the Executive Board. During 2012, member-states are currently re-assessing how article 4 is implemented, with a view to updating its scope and monitoring. [8]  

UNESCO Declaration on the Use of Scientific Knowledge — 1999 (article 33): this states, "Today, more than ever, science and its applications are indispensable for development. All levels of government and the private sector should provide enhanced support for building up an adequate and evenly distributed scientific and technological capacity through appropriate education and research programmes as an indispensable foundation for economic, social, cultural and environmentally sound development. This is particularly urgent for developing countries." [9]  

This Declaration encompasses issues such as pollution-free production, efficient resource use, biodiversity protection and brain drains. Monitoring is being reconsidered within a broader re-assessment of the 1974 Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Research. Governmental bodies and stakeholders concerned with the monitoring and implementation of the Declaration include COMEST, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the International Council for Science (ICSU).

Other Instruments important for human rights-based approaches to science, technology, and development:

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) [10]
  • Declaration on Social Progress and Development (1969) [11]
  • Declaration on the Use of Scientific and Technological Progress in the Interests of Peace and for the Benefit of Mankind (1975) [12]
  • Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005) [13]
  • The Declaration of Dakar (2007) [14]
  • The Cairo Declaration (2006) [15]

Culture clashes

The human rights-based approach is not without its critics. Indeed, a powerful critique comes from development theorists and policymakers in the global South, who emphasize the Eurocentric and Western origins of human rights and how they clash radically with non-European religious and social world views. Alternate thought systems, which often favour holism and community over 'self', call the approach into question, often viewing demands to recognise human rights as yet another strategy for subjugating citizens in the global South by imposing the 'human' and individual 'rights' onto cultures that struggle to recognise these notions.

Should we, therefore, endorse an approach that is called into question by some of the very communities it is intended to benefit? While it undoubtedly comes from highly specific social and political contexts in 18th century Europe, it should not be lightly dismissed. It would be a mistake to assert, for example, that human rights campaigns have done little good in conflict zones, or to argue that Eurocentric roots cancel out their capacity for positive social change.

Rather, the challenge is to explore how the human rights approach can help promote indigenous and local knowledge; how it can enable dialogue between competing beliefs where each claims to be universal; and how it can establish bridges between traditional and innovative forms of science and technology.

Kenyan rainmakers

It is hoped that human rights approaches can link scientific  innovation and indigenous knowledge

Flickr/DFID – UK Department for International Development

Two-way street

Good science, and a respect for human rights, rely heavily on each other. For example,scientists depend on human rights to protect their own scientific freedom — which in turn lets them promote well-being and human rights through their work. [16]

In addition, science and technology can cause serious harm to the social and ecological systems on which life depends. Military technologies, for example, can be used to undermine liberty and justice; and new technologies, such as nanotechnology or geoengineering, may even call into question what it means to be human. Human rights approaches can shed light on the ethical implications of new technologies and examine how policy can keep up with rapidly developing science.

On the other hand, science and technology also bolster development and even the fulfilment of human rights (box 2). This extends to information and communication technologies (ICTs) as tools that potentially facilitate access to scientific knowledge. ICTs are rapidly influencing democratic practice through e-government and social networks, for example. [17] But the use of ICT tools can also be suppressed through censorship or under-development — leading to digital divides that bring new forms of exclusion. This illustrates how human rights approaches can support demands for fair and effective use of technologies such as ICTs.

BOX 2: Emerging issues: Geospatial technologies

Another way in which science and technology intersect with human rights issues is the use of technologies such as geo-spatial, satellite imagery, and geographic positioning systems to identify and track human-rights violations. They offer access to remote parts of the world, providing both new information and a powerful way of communicating it for advocacy, policy debates or litigation.

Amnesty International, for example, has created the Science for Human Rights Project where geo-spatial technologies are actively used to access conflict zones and gather visual evidence in novel ways. [18] Amnesty's recent work in Syria, "Eyes on Syria" [19] illustrates the breadth of these technologies which can, with great precision, track unlawful executions, cases of torture and property destruction.

This approach could have enormous impact on the legal treatment of human rights violations and international law. But the status of geospatial data in national and international human rights tribunals, and questions around who gathers it, who reads it, and to what end, remain to be examined. According to project leaders at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which has also emphasized the importance of geospatial technologies, scholars, organisations and advocates need to come together with the technology community to discuss the implications and identify where geospatial tools might be needed. [20]

Relationship to ethics

The right to science and its benefits are not yet central to the ethics of development (a discipline that engages with human and social implications of development). This is partly because development ethicists prefer a language of principles, considered appropriate for capacity building, over a language of rights, founded in legal concerns. [21]

But the bigger issue is whether, and how, a human rights-based approach should inform development ethics. Whose rights does the term refer to? Can the focus on individuals be adapted to the realities of development work at the community level?

The same questions apply to the ethics of science and technology, for which a standardised human rights approach has yet to be formulated. However, the UNESCO declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights is an important landmark in bringing human rights based approaches to bear on the ethical implications of rapid technological transformation. It explicitly calls on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises that ethical issues should be examined from a rights perspective, while noting "that health [in the broad sense of well-being and fulfilment of needs] does not depend solely on scientific and technological research developments but also on psychosocial and cultural factors". [14]

Policy principles

Human rights approaches to policy can have an impact on many areas of science, technology and development, including climate change, housing, energy production, deforestation, access to fresh water, biological warfare, surveillance, public health, and gender issues. They are also at the heart of debates about developing a 'green' global economy [box 3].

In this context, one fundamental principle of policymaking should be a focus on securing human rights, and clarification of the actions required of both rights-holders and duty-bearers to do so. In concrete terms, this requires both policy-makers and stakeholders to remain vigilant as to how the policy they construct redresses human vulnerability and inequality, while actively establishing mechanisms that thwart human rights abuse. At the national and geo-political level, a human rights-based approach might allow vulnerable groups greater authority in conversations over global policy; and it would impel policymakers to tackle those aspects of global economic and political power that create the conditions for human rights violations.

BOX 3: Green societies or green economies

Rights-based approaches to science, technology, and development are closely bound to the ongoing quest for greater global sustainability. UNESCO's message to Rio+20, "From Green Economies to Green Societies" sought to re-orient conventional wisdom on the future of sustainability by arguing that because economies are embedded within society, achieving sustainable development requires more than low-carbon technologies and green investments. It calls for human rights-based policies that take into account not only economic but also scientific, social and educational considerations. [22]

Good practice

To make policy and knowledge work, good practices are needed, and these must be assessed for their impact on, and implications for, policy objectives. The key here is to translate, mobilize, and evaluate the contribution of human rights-based approaches.

The UN's human rights-based approach to programmes of development cooperation, policy and technical assistance uses a three-tiered approach that focuses on goals (realising rights), processes (standards and principles), and outcomes (increased capacity to meet obligations and claim rights).[23]

A Human Rights-Based Approach Development Planning Toolkit, developed with the support of various UN agencies, offers a reference for development planning — outlining the priorities to keep in mind in development work within the larger architecture of development projects. And it helps analyse progress in implementing human rights approaches. One of the tools offered is a table for detailing how people and groups may be affected or overlooked by a development project (figure 1).  

Figure 1. Actor analysis — a decision making tool for a human rights-based approach to development planning. [24] (click for full image)

Figure 1. Actor analysis — a decision making tool for a human rights-based approach to development planning. [24]

The toolkit attempts to firmly move the human rights-based approach away from abstract rulings and towards an analytic frame that can measure success. It is part of an approach to development planning (figure 2) that offers a series of principle-based guidelines that readily lend themselves to development projects, from inception to completion, while clearly illustrating how the international instruments discussed above (in Box 1) can be used to implement the human rights-based approach.

Figure 2. A human rights-based approach to development planning. [25] (click for full image)

Figure 2. A human rights-based approach to development planning. [25]

An example of how this might work in practice is a study of advancing the right to water, sanitation, water infrastructure and water use, led by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Lao PDR in collaboration with the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), the development charity Oxfam, and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). [26] Researchers used a range of techniques, to examine the politics of water distribution and use in Laos, that fall under the rubric of human rights-based approaches, including: participatory monitoring and evaluation, community dialogues between provincial and district officials and villages, transparent bidding processes for water supply, and community user groups (which build village consensus on contribution rates, maintenance of water systems).

Water cisterns

Researchers used human rights-based techniques to study water use in Laos


However, these techniques are not exclusively human rights-based. Indeed, one of the great obstacles to developing good human rights-based practice is that the approach can encompass everything, thus risking being nothing at all. Also, consultation and dialogue do not necessarily guarantee consensus, let alone firm implementation.

Human rights-based futures

Certainly, science, technology, and development are central to the industrial and post-industrial revolution of the 21st century. And, even with their limitations, human rights are central to discussions on how science, technology, and development can promote human well-being. Human rights are also rights to sustainability, serving to protect the poor and vulnerable from the excesses of market-driven science and technology. Without a human rights approach to science, technology, and development, the uneven distribution of goods — from services and natural resources to intangible resources such as human dignity and autonomy — would only grow exacerbated, resulting in further environmental degradation and, above all, heightened vulnerability.

In other words, human rights-based approaches should not be treated as merely decorative moral dimensions to policy or scientific and technological innovation. They can form the very heart of sustainable futures.

S. Romi Mukherjee is senior lecturer in Political Theory and the History of Religions at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago-Center in Paris, France.

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


[1] UNDP. Belize Human Rights Based Approach (2011)
[2] UNFPA. History and Definitions of the Human Rights-Based Approach [21kB] (2010).
[3] UNFPA. The Human Rights-Based Approach: Advancing Human Rights (2008)
[4] Bruno-van Vijfeijken, T et al. Setting Higher Goals: Rights and Development. Trade Offs and Challenges in Implementing a Rights Based Approach to Development. Monday Developments, 27 (12), 19-20. (2009)
[5] UN. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1948)
 [6] UNESCO. World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) (1998)
[7] UNESCO. Recommendation on the Status of Scientific Researchers (1974)  
[8] UNESCO. Implementation of standard-setting Instruments. Part III Implementation of the 1974 Recommendation on the status of scientific researchers [136kB] (2012)
[9] UNESCO. Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge UNESCO World Conference on Science (Budapest, 1999)
[10] UN OHCHR. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. (Adopted 1966, entry into force 1976)
[11] UN OHCHR. Declaration on Social Progress and Development (1969)
[12] UN OHCHR. Declaration on the Use of Scientific and Technological Progress in the Interests of Peace and for the Benefit of Mankind (1975)
[13] UNESCO. Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005)
[14] The African Science Academy Development Initiative Declaration of Dakar 2007  Third Annual International Conference of the African Science Academy Development Initiative, Senegal, November 2007 (ASADI III). Published on www.kmafrica.com (2007)
[15] African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology Cairo Declaration [43kB]. Extraordinary Conference of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (Cairo 2006)
[16] Claude, R. Science in Service of Human Rights, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania (2002), pp. 14–17.
[17] Selian, A.N. ICTs in Support of Human Rights, Democracy and Good Governance [510kB].  International Telecommunication Union (2002)
[18] Amnesty International USA. Using Science as a Tool to Protect Human Rights (2012)
[19] Amnesty International Eyes on Syria (2012)
[20] Wolfinbarger S. and Wyndham J. Remote visual evidence of displacement. Forced Migration Review 38: 20 (2011)
[21] Gasper, D Development Ethics and Human Development [52kB]. HDR Networks 24. Human Development Report Office of the UNDP (2009)
 [22] UNESCO. From Green Economies to Green Societies. UNESCO's Commitment to Sustainable Development [6.03MB] (2012)
[23] WHO/OHCHR. A human rights-based approach to health [287kB]. Factsheet published by World Health Organization and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2010)
[24] Socorro Diokno, M. Chapter 5. Human Rights Based Approach to Assessment. In Human Rights Based Approach Development Toolkit www.hrbatoolkit.org (2012)
[25] Socorro Diokno, M. Part I. Human Rights Based Approach to Development Planning. In Human Rights Based Approach Development Toolkit www.hrbatoolkit.org (2012)
[26] Berman, G. Undertaking a Human Rights-Based Approach: Lessons for Policy, Planning and Programming — Documenting Lessons Learned for the Human Rights-Based Approach to Programming: An Asia-Pacific Perspective — Implications for Policy, Planning and Programming. pp. 506 (UNESCO Bangkok, 2008)