Although the human rights movement and the sphere of research ethics have overlapping principles and goals, there has been little attempt to incorporate external political and human rights contexts into research ethics codes or ethics reviews.

Every element of a research ethics review — the balance of risks and benefits, the assurance of rights for individual participants, and the fair selection of research populations — can be affected by the political and human rights background in which a study is done. For example, research that at first seems to be low in risk may become high in risk if implemented in a country where the government might breach the confidentiality of study results or where results might be used to deport a refugee group.

Chris Beyrer and Nancy Kass advise that researchers should determine whether research could or should be done by consulting human rights organisations and when possible a trusted colleague, to learn the background political context and human rights conditions of the settings in which they propose to do research.

(Free registration with The Lancet is required to view this article.)