The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition
Juan Gallardo and Michele Irwin
In 2009, the Science and Human Rights Coalition was established under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The Science and Human Rights Coalition is a network of scientific and engineering organizations in the United States that share the belief that science and scientists have an important role to play in the realization of human rights for all people. (http://shr.aaas.org/coalition) The Coalition strives to promote communication and knowledge about human rights among scientific organizations as well as between the human rights and scientific communities. Scientific societies and associations as well as individual scientists come together to learn about human rights in general, and more specifically, learn how human rights influence their science and what fellow scientists are doing to advance those rights. Coalition members also discover what science—what scientific knowledge and scientists’ voices—can offer to human rights practitioners and the human rights community.
To facilitate this communication and knowledge, the Coalition is comprised of five working groups that carry out activities related to 1) the Welfare of Scientists, 2) Science Ethics and Human Rights, 3) Service to the STEM Community, 4) Service to the Human Rights Community, and 5) Education and Information Resources--that promote collaboration between the science and human rights practitioners. It is within this framework where the bulk of the Coalition’s work is done. Here, scientists organize workshops on the intersection of human rights and science, they compile syllabi for teaching modules on science and human rights, and they develop resources to train scientific associations about their role in addressing human rights. The list of activities undertaken by these working groups is impressive and demonstrates the breadth and significance of the relationship between human rights and science.
The Coalition also engages in an over-arching initiative that reinforces the efforts of these working groups. In 2007, the United Nations began a process to define Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm#art15), which states, in part, that everyone has the right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.” The Coalition initiative promotes awareness of and knowledge about this right, but it also is actively seeking to shape how this right is defined. When the UN began its process of defining this right, it did so without significant input from the scientific community. Thus, the Coalition has committed itself to ensure that the voices of the scientific community are heard and represented.
As part of this effort, the Coalition’s Service to the STEM Community Working Group organized focus group discussions with Coalition member organizations to ask scientists from a broad cross-section of scientific disciplines about their views on the definition this right. What, precisely, does this right mean to you as a scientist? Does it mean something different to physicists, ecologists, chemists and psychologists? What specific knowledge can scientists bring to the definition of the right? Information from those focus groups will be used to inform the UN process to define the right and guarantee that the voices of scientists from a wide range of disciplines are represented. (Readers who are interested in the UN process can learn more by reading a May 2012 report to the UN Human Rights Council from the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session20/A-HRC-20-26_en.pdf.)
In addition to these activities, the Coalition meets twice a year, with each meeting focusing on a specific theme that demonstrates the connections between human rights and science. In July 2012, (http://srhrl.aaas.org/coalition/Meetings/2012/), the theme was about how human rights intersect with the technological applications of science and engineering such as the use of modern equipments for detection and monitoring of physical and biological properties, computer and information science, and innovative techniques that have positive impact on facilitating access to medicine, clean water, pollution control, and education. These opportunities for the use of technologies to address grave human rights concerns is interconnected with an issue that the Coalition works to address as well, i.e., the professional responsibility of scientists and engineers toward our fellow human beings and human rights.
More recently, on January 31 – February 1, the Coalition meeting focused on the intersections among children’s rights, science and technology. Participants learned about the rights of children as set out in international declarations and treaties as well as issues on which science and technology could impact important children’s rights concerns.
The American Physical Society has been an active member of the Coalition since its inception and was also active in the efforts that went into the establishment of the Coalition. As most FIP members know, human rights have played a prominent role in the Society, whether through the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), the APS Andrei Sakharov Prize, or the various statements that APS has made that have addressed specific rights concerns. Maybe more importantly, on November 15, 1998, the APS Council adopted a statement declaring “…its support for the rights and freedoms in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for all people, everywhere.” This solidified the Society’s commitment to human rights and emphasized the awareness that science—physics—and human rights are interconnected.
Given the Society’s historical commitment to human rights, specifically with respect to the defense of the rights of individual scientists by CIFS, APS has been active in the Coalition’s Working Group on the Welfare of Scientists. The mission of this working group is to demonstrate to the scientific community the value of and necessity for scientific organizations to defend the rights of their members and fellow scientists and to advocate for them when needed. The working group aims to increase the effectiveness of organizations in the defense of the rights of scientists.
In support of the Article 15 initiative, APS joined other scientific societies and associations by hosting a focus group of APS members to help define the right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications. In November 2012, several APS members participated in this event to obtain physicists’ views on the definition of Article 15. Information from that focus group will feed into the Coalition’s report to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this year that will bring the voices of the scientific community to bear on the UN’s effort to define this right.
Human rights are fundamental entitlements of all human beings. These rights are guaranteed by law as spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations as a non-binding resolution in 1948 (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/) and subsequently affirmed by two binding covenants in 1966, i.e., the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition recognizes that the scientific community has an important and unique role to play in the realization of these rights. APS is proud to be a part of this effort.
We invite all FIP members interested in learning more about the intersection of human rights and science to attend the next Coalition meeting in Washington D.C. on July 11-12, 2013. Come meet with fellow scientists from a wide spectrum of disciplines and learn about how your research and work contribute (or can contribute) to the realization of human rights. For more information contact one of us.
Juan Gallardo is retired from the Advanced Accelerator Group, Brookhaven National Laboratory. He has served on the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), including as Chair in 2007. In addition, he has been a member of the APS Andrei Sakharov Prize Selection Committee. Michele Irwin is the International Programs Administrator at APS where she works closely with CIFS. Both represent APS at the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition and serve on the Coalition’s Council.
Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.