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International News

"To speak for those who can't."


By Khaled A. Sallam

morning death of Iraqi university professor
Photo from Aljazeera (10/20/07)

A black sign morning the death of a university professor in Iraq
Since the 1970s when it began as a subcommittee of the APS Panel on Public Affairs, the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS) has advocated on behalf of scientists whose rights have been violated. CIFS monitors the human rights of scientists–not merely physicists–throughout the world, including the United States, and works to assist those in need. Scientists worldwide face injustices every day. While we may not be able to bring positive resolution to every injustice that occurs, the scientific community can still have a positive influence through its defense of our fellow scientists’ rights.

Where the Scientific Community’s Support is Needed 

CIFS has followed with great anguish the violence that has engulfed Iraq since 2003. Most disturbing, however, is that our colleagues—Iraqi academics, scientists—are being deliberately targeted. Hundreds of academics have been killed or injured, and others have been kidnapped or have disappeared. Still more are fleeing the country to prevent falling victims themselves.

At Baghdad University alone, eighty professors have been killed since the war began, according to an article in The Washington Post on 27 January 2008. From other reports in the media, we know that those from Baghdad University who have been murdered include the president of the University (July 2003), two deans (December 2007 and January 2008), and the head of the chemical engineering department (June 2007), to name just a few. The Arabic news network Aljazeera reported that those who have been killed include most of the scientists who participated in the Iraqi nuclear program or collaborated with Iraqi military industries as well as those with rare scientific expertise. 

No one can pinpoint the reason why these academics were killed.  Yet, due to this violence and atmosphere of fear, Iraq is losing one of its most valuable and irreplaceable resources: its scientific and intellectual personnel who are critical to the intellectual and educational survival and to the building of a stable and democratic Iraq.

In 2006, the International Council for Science (ICSU) issued a statement expressing its support for the Iraqi scientific community and condemning the torture and killing of Iraqi scientists (see ICSU statement). ICSU’s Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the Conduct of Science subsequently published a letter in the journal Nature (Vol. 444, pp 422, 23 November, 2006) urging the international scientific community to unite to identify ways in which to end the violence against Iraqi scientists. CIFS has called on Iraqi and US authorities to secure the urgent protection of educators, academics, and scientists in Iraq. CIFS encourages APS members to do the same by writing to your Senator and/or your favorite presidential candidate and asking him/her to put pressure on the Iraqi authorities and coalition forces. Your efforts will help the remaining Iraqi scientists to resume their lives without fear and continue training the next generation of Iraqi scientists and leaders.

Where the Scientific Community’s Support Has Helped

In August 2007, student protests occurred at the University of Dhaka and Rajshahi University in Bangladesh. Several professors tried to serve as mediators between student protestors and police. As a result, twelve professors, including three physicists, were arrested and put in jail. Their detentions and the reported violations of their rights were brought to CIFS’s attention by the American Society of Plant Biologists via the Science and Human Rights Program of the AAAS. CIFS wrote to Bangladeshi officials to express concern for the rights of the detained individuals. Happily, by January 2008, five professors had been acquitted and released from jail. The seven others were found guilty of inciting student unrest, but were subsequently pardoned.

One of the physicists who had been detained wrote that he was grateful for CIFS’s support and the concern expressed by the scientific community on his and the other detainees’ behalf. Even when a letter from CIFS does not reach a high- level government official, it still accomplishes other important things such as letting the imprisoned know that they are not forgotten or getting them better treatment by prison guards. And above all, it reminds the rights abusers that the world is paying attention. Calling attention to injustices can have an impact even if we cannot single-handedly stop human rights abuses from occurring or continuing. 

Concerning the Bangladeshi case, Juan C. Gallardo, Chair of CIFS in 2007, said “This is a small victory in the general struggle for respect of human rights, indeed, but of utmost importance to the 12 academics and tens of students acquitted and/or pardoned.” Of course, CIFS by itself cannot take credit for the release of all the faculty and students. Only through the prompt and combined action of several scientific associations and human rights organizations can CIFS be successful. Gallardo added that “The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition may be the right approach at this junction.” (The Coalition is an alliance of human rights groups in the scientific community that is being established through the auspices of the AAAS.) In the past, Gallardo was on the other end of the story when he was one of the cases in which the APS intervened, in the 1970s in Argentina. As a former Chair of CIFS, he believes that “it is our moral responsibility to speak for those who can’t.”

To fulfill its mission and to uphold the American Physical Society’s support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, CIFS needs every APS member to help defend the human rights of our persecuted colleagues. If you learn that a colleague has been subjected to human rights violations, please bring it to CIFS’ attention. CIFS can help either directly or through its partners in the scientific community. More information is available on the CIFS web site.

Ed. Note: Khaled A. Sallam is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Oklahoma State University, and a member of CIFS.

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