Q&A: Farida Shaheed on the human right to science

Farida Shaheed
Copyright: OHCHR / Danielle Kirby

Speed read

  • People have a right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications
  • Access to science must include participation in the whole scientific process
  • And more dialogue is needed on contentious issues such as IP rights

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The UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights tells SciDev.Net what the right to science could mean, and how to fulfil it.
[GENEVA] All people have a "right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications" — this is one of the issues SciDev.Net has recently explored in a series of Spotlight articles.
This right was recognised in the weighty 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. But several decades later, the meaning of this right and the obligations it entails are still open to question.
Last year, Pakistani sociologist Farida Shaheed issued a report offering clarifications and recommendations to promote the right to science, as part of her mandate as UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.
SciDev.Net caught up with her at a UN seminar on the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, held in Geneva last week (3-4 October).

Why has the right to science received so little attention so far compared with other concepts such as the right to food or the right to health?

I think nobody really understood what the normative scope and content of such a right would be. At an experts' meeting on this subject in December 2011, one of the questions that kept being asked is: 'what more than the right to food and health are we talking about when we talk about the right to science?'
That's why I'm proposing that this particular article needs to be read with Article 1 of the Covenant, which is about the right to self-determination and participation.

Access to science must include participation in the whole scientific process — it's not just the end product. You have the scientific process, then the knowledge that's created, then the applications. All of those things make up the right to science.

Yet much of the debate seems to focus on access to technological innovation.

I think you need everything. To me human rights have to go beyond mere technological innovations, although those can also be very crucial. The ability to aspire to conceive a better future that is not only desirable but attainable, can be radically changed by technology. I'm not saying technology is not important, but the right to scientific progress and its applications is broader.

What was the most important finding from your report last year?

I came to realise exactly why scientific advancement and its applications are linked to cultural rights, both in the Universal Declaration and in the Covenant.
This aspect has puzzled many people for a while. I struggled because much of the literature said it was just coincidental that science had been put in there.
If you look at much of the UN documentation, science is seen either as a way of improving human existence or as a possible disaster for human existence.
But thinking about it, I understood that really both science and culture relate to human beings' interactions with their environment, be it natural or social, and people's creative responses to what is going on around them. The world changes all the time and I think artistic expression as well as scientific progress are both in essence a response to what is going on around us.
That's the link: they both relate to human creativity. We must ensure that we all benefit from that creativity and that creators and inventors enjoy the moral and material benefits from that creativity.
It's really about investigating, being curious about the world around you, and that curiosity takes different forms. I think we have less and less of it now, we have much narrower perspectives. In today's world we're very specialised, we divide ourselves up into bits and pieces, which is not how indigenous people and other cultures continue to function.

What other finding would you highlight from your report?

The second thing — and I have to really credit the work of Lea Shaver on this, among others — is the idea of knowledge as a global public good. [Shaver, who is associate professor of law and dean's fellow at the Indiana University School of Law, United States, writes that the modern Intellectual Property (IP) regime privileges private interests over public ones, which is at odds with the spirit of social justice and cooperation that guided the Universal Declaration. The right to science and culture may serve as a tool to rebalance this, she writes.]
The thing that troubles me are issues of IP regimes, which may not be as helpful as it is claimed that they are, both in terms of innovation and in terms of protecting the rights of creators.
Even though states are entitled to use flexibilities within the World Trade Organization's (WTO's) agreement on Trade-Related aspects of IP Rights in order to protect public health, countries that really try and use these flexibilities come across enormous problems and resistance.
There's a need for trade regimes to have a serious discussion about human rights.
If the UN system is supposed to prioritise human rights, then that has to be the yardstick against which all other regimes are assessed to make sure that they are in compliance with human rights, not the other way around.

What is needed now to take that debate beyond a mere Human Rights discussion?

I have had good engagement with the Worldwide Intellectual Property Organization. I have not engaged with the WTO but I think those are entities that need to come into the discussion.
I'm hoping that perhaps some countries can take the lead. As a Special Rapporteur I have very little leverage in bringing people together, I can only make recommendations.
One of my main recommendations last year in the report was that we need more dialogue on contentious issues. I'm encouraged by the number of steps that countries have actually taken, including countries that are not happy with the idea of this being a human right.
For instance, the United States was unhappy with the report. That's very curious because several examples of good practices come from there. The European Union was at least open to the idea of having a discussion, and that's really important. Europe has excellent guidelines and these are starting points for building a consensus on how to go forward.

Link to Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Link to International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Link to Lea Shaver's paper

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.