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Physicists and the Eternal Struggle for Human Rights

by Andrew M. Sessler

I would like to tell you about the work we did on behalf of scientists from the former Soviet Union from 1977 to 1986, for our experiences then, and our actions then, are very relevant to the present. For younger people it may serve as an example, showing how an active research physicist sacrificed a paper or two, but still believes that the time was more than well-spent.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against all forms of tyranny over the mind of man." That is something I, too, have long believed. When I saw what was happening in the now-former Soviet Union in 1977, I was so outraged that I couldn't help becoming active. Along with other concerned colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, I formed an international organization called Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, Sharansky (SOS). Our focus was on these three scientists, but our goal was to improve the situation in the Soviet Union for many more, by making their names household words and raising awareness of their predicaments.

The best known was Andrei Sakharov, a physicist known as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and one of the first to realize the dangers of atmospheric atomic tests. As a result, he was instrumental in developing the Partial Test Ban Treaty between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1963, and was awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. However, his efforts on behalf of peace drew the wrath and persecution of Soviet officials, and he suffered repeated arrests and eventual exile to Gorky as a result of his protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Yuri Orlov, an accelerator physicist, was a supporter of Sakharov and formed the first Helsinki Watch Group in 1976, designed to monitor the progress on human rights made by nations that had signed the 1975 Helsinki Accords. After nearly a decade of imprisonment for his actions, he was released and sent to the U.S. in September 1986. Natan Sharansky was a little-known Jewish computer expert whose wife left the Soviet Union the day after their marriage in 1974. He was imprisoned four years later, and was finally released in a prisoner exchange in January 1986.

The first major public initiative of SOS was in July 1978, during Sharansky's trial in Moscow. We invited his wife, Avital, then living in Israel, to come to the U.S. and meet with scientists around the country to galvanize support for her husband. Since SOS had no funding, we charged the expenses to our personal credit cards, hoping to eventually be reimbursed by donations from our colleagues. Locally, we organized a highly successful rally on the Berkeley campus, featuring Avital Sharansky and folk singer Joan Baez, with more than 5,000 people in attendance.

Spurred on by the enthusiastic response to our first venture, we embarked on a moratorium on scientific exchange between individual American scientists and the Soviet Union, although with much misgiving and discussion, since it is so against the scientific tradition. We viewed this as a protest of the blatant misrepresentation of our Soviet colleagues by the Soviet authorities, and felt it would be effective in securing the release of Orlov and Sharansky, since the Soviets clearly needed international scientific cooperation to achieve and maintain first-rate science and technology. In an action unprecedented during peacetime, more than 2,400 American scientists signed the moratorium pledges.

Reaction from the Soviet Union was swift and strong. Within weeks we had a smuggled letter from Sakharov and Naum Meiman, written on behalf of many dissidents, strongly praising our actions. At the same time, we were denounced in the Soviet media, both on Moscow radio news and in Pravda.

The 1980 invasion of Afghanistan brought further repression of human rights, and in response, SOS organized a worldwide moratorium of scientific exchange, resulting in 7,900 scientists in 44 countries committing themselves on behalf of their beleaguered Soviet colleagues. We worked actively to change the venue of international conferences scheduled for the Soviet Union, and asked American scientists not to attend such meetings. We also adopted the strategy of publicly protesting visits to the U.S. of prominent Soviet scientists who had led campaigns of vilification against Sakharov and other dissidents. And when Elena Bonner was denied permission in 1984 to travel to the West for medical purposes, we arranged a hostage exchange program, recruiting 55 reputable Western scientists to travel to the U.S.S.R. as "good-faith witnesses" to guarantee that Mrs. Bonner's trip would be solely for medical purposes.

With the eventual releases of Sakharov, Orlov, and Sharansky, SOS accomplished its goals and went out of existence, but forms of tyranny are still practiced against people all over the world, and other organizations still exist to combat it. The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences both have committees devoted to human rights issues, along with the APS Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), the Committee of Concerned Scientists, and the Campaigns for Human Rights. There are also non-scientific organizations such as Asia Watch, the Committee to End the Chinese Gulag, and Amnesty International.

It is often said that the situation today is very different and much more complicated than when the SOS was active. But is that really true? I don't think so. Certainly human rights activities should include many countries, but this was just as true years ago. For instance, in the early 1980s, CIFS was actively addressing problems in Turkey, Chile, and Argentina. Today, there are many scientists suffering in China, including physics graduate student Liu Gang, tortured in prison; Xu Liangying, a historian of physics under house arrest; and Wang Kuanbao, a physics student partly crushed under a tank in Tienneman Square and now denied further study by the Chinese authorities. How many cases do you need to become as active as we in SOS were?

CIFS has been active since 1980 and has protested every one of the cases mentioned above. Its current activities are impressively multifold. In the last year alone, the committee has been involved with dozens of individual cases in 15 different countries, ranging from a physics professor in Uzbekistan confined to a labor colony because of his political views, to concern over the denial of U.S. visas for scientists from diverse countries to attend conferences in this country. But there is still plenty of work to be done.

I like to think that many physicists look up, on occasion, from their experimental apparatus or computer screen, to see that all is not well with the world, and devote some time, effort, and money to working with some of the groups mentioned above. The opportunities are there, and the need is there, for the struggle for human rights is an eternal one.

Andrew M. Sessler is a senior scientist with, and former director of, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, and the first recipient of the APS Dwight Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Service in 1994 for his work with SOS.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin