Standing up for science this Human Rights Day and every day

Human Rights Day is celebrated every year on 10 December – the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is an occasion to re-affirm the importance of upholding universal human rights as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 72 years ago in Paris, expresses the fundamental rights that are shared by all of humanity across the world. The adoption of the Declaration was a monumental achievement: never before had countries agreed on the universal human rights that would apply to all people, everywhere. It is the most translated document in the world and provides the foundations for international human rights law.

Underscored by the commitment to uphold equality, justice and human dignity, the Declaration proclaims 30 articles detailing the key civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights that apply to all of humanity equally and inalienably. It enshrines the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Strengthening this right, is UNESCO’s Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers, passed unanimously in 2017 by Member-States at its 39th Conference.  Through its mission to advance science as a global public good, the ISC works to fulfil the promise of these commitments, and to ensure that no-one is left behind.

The ISC’s Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science (CFRS) is the guardian of our work on the right to engage in scientific enquiry, to pursue and communicate knowledge, and to associate freely in such activities.

This Human Rights Day, we are taking a closer look at the Committee’s recent work, and what it uncovers about the right to share in scientific advancement today.


The Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science is currently monitoring several cases in which the rights and freedoms of individual scientists to conduct their work have been restricted.

In recent weeks, we have highlighted the Committee’s activities in calling for the capital sentence against scholar Ahmadreza Djalali to be dropped immediately, and for him to be released.

Dr Ahmadreza Djalali is an Iranian-Swedish scholar of disaster medicine who teaches at universities including Karolinska Institutet, in Sweden; Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale, in Italy; and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in Belgium. Djalali was arrested in April 2016 while visiting Iran at the invitation of the University of Tehran and Shiraz University. He was later convicted on espionage charges and given a death sentence. Dr Djalali has disputed the allegations, asserting that his ties to the international academic community are the basis of his prosecution. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found in a 2017 opinion that he was arbitrarily detained and called for his immediate release. Many scientists, academics, Nobel laureates, and international organisations, including the ISC in a 2019 statement (in addition to the recent statement mentioned above) have advocated on Djalali’s behalf to appeal for his release.

In recent weeks it has been reported that Iranian authorities are preparing to carry out his death sentence at any moment, and the CFRS has stepped up its campaign for his release, including by making a statement during a day-long webinar of support.

The Committee keeps a watching brief over harassment of scientists performing their work professionally and in compliance with international practice. Such actions may constitute a violation of the individual scientist’s rights and may deter or restrict other scientists in similar settings from continuing their work. More generally, these actions lower public trust and confidence in science.

In line with this aim, the Committee continues to monitor the ongoing persecution of Greek statistician Andreas Georgiou.

Dr Andreas Georgiou is a Greek economist and statistician, and former head of Greece’s national statistical office, the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT). Dr Georgiou has been involved in a series of legal proceedings for nine years, related to his tenure as president of Greece’s national statistical office from 2010 to 2015. Dr Georgiou has been investigated, tried, and acquitted on three separate occasions on identical charges of conspiring to artificially inflate Greece’s deficit. In addition, he has been subject to criminal investigations for seeking to protect statistical confidentiality of the information of households and enterprises in accordance with statistical principles. The statistical processes and ethics for production and dissemination of the official statistics published by Georgiou are considered by the international statistical community to have been fully consistent with European Statistical Standards and international principles and ethics. Eurostat repeatedly verified the accuracy and reliability these figures and the methodologies used.

Advancing scientific knowledge requires international collaboration, which itself depends on the ability of scientists to freely move around and communicate their work, in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In August 2020, the Committee issued a statement calling for the release of eight Iranian researchers associated with the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation, who have been detained in Iran since January 2018.

The environmental scientists and conservationists from the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation were using camera traps to monitor and collect data on the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah. The group was working with Iran’s Department of Environment and had reportedly secured the necessary rights, permits and funding from the Iranian government and other relevant bodies. Nine members of the group were detained in January 2018. One of the founders of the organization, Professor Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian sociologist and conservationist, died in custody on 9 February 2018. On 23 November 2019, the remaining eight conservationists who had been detained with Seyed Emami received sentences of between four- and ten-years’ imprisonment. In February 2020, the Iranian appeals court upheld the prison sentences.

In November 2020, The ISC lent its strong support to its member, the Science Council of Japan, in efforts to maintain scientific freedom of choice in selecting which scholars to appoint to scientific governance bodies.

In this case, the ISC expressed concern regarding the decision of the Prime Minister of Japan not to approve the appointment of six scholars to the General Assembly of the Science Council of Japan. For science to progress efficiently and for its benefits to be shared equitably, scientists must have intellectual freedom. This includes individual freedom of enquiry and exchange of ideas, freedom to reach scientifically defensible conclusions, and institutional freedom to apply collectively scientific standards of validity, replicability, and accuracy. The ISC was therefore concerned that the recommendations of the highest independent scientific authority in Japan had been overturned by the Prime Minister.

In addition to making public statements, the Committee also works behind-the-scenes to keep up the pressure on decision-makers to honour their commitments to the freedom of scientific enquiry and to fundamental human rights for scientists. This includes cases when the individual scientists concerned prefer not to be named in public advocacy campaigns, and the Committee respects their wishes.

The CFRS works in partnership with the ISC’s membership and the wider scientific community to advocate for freedom of science and to uphold human rights in cases concerning scientists.

When the scientific community works in concert, together we can help to fulfil the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In December 2019 we celebrated the release of Graduate student Xiyue Wang.

Xiyue Wang, an American citizen and Princeton PhD student, was arrested by Iranian authorities and imprisoned on charges of espionage while conducting research on the Qajar dynasty in Tehran, Iran. Xiyue Wang’s arrest in August 2016 was kept confidential until July 2017, when it was announced that he had been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. The International Science Council’s predecessor, the International Council for Science (ICSU), first wrote to Iranian Authorities in August 2017 to appeal for a review of the case. In an open letter from October 2018, ISC President Daya Reddy endorsed the United Nations’ appeal for Wang’s immediate release.

When Xiyue Wang was released in 2019, his family noted the many people and organizations from across the scholarly community who had supported his case.

In 2020 we have also welcomed news of the release of other scholars imprisoned while responsibly carrying out their research.

The upheavals of 2020 have thrown issues of the right to participate in scientific advancement and its benefits into sharp focus.

In a statement published in June 2020, the CFRS reaffirmed the importance of ethical responsibility for scientists in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. In situations of global threat, the right to scientific freedom is paired with the responsibility to ensure that research promotes the common good.

The year was also marked by discussions about the scourge of systemic racism in our societies following the death of George Floyd in police custody in May 2020. The ISC issued a statement on combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination in science systems, and called on our members and international partners to join with us in working to urgently tackle all forms of discrimination.

As we approach the end of 2020, Human Rights Day is a moment to re-assert our commitment to uphold universal values of equality, justice and human dignity in all of our work, and to ensure that they underscore our support for the scientific community and for science itself.


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