Showing solidarity for detained and missing scientists

The United Nations’ International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members is marked every year on 25 March. It is an important opportunity to mobilize action, demand justice and strengthen efforts to protect UN staff, as well as colleagues in the scientific community.

The International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members is marked each year on the anniversary of the abduction of Alec Collett, a former journalist who was working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) when he was abducted by armed gunman in 1985. His body was found in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 2009.

This day reminds the international community to strengthen resolve to give UN staff and colleagues the protection they need to continue their work for peace and prosperity for all. The International Science Council (ISC) works closely with the UN to champion and protect the work of scientists in advancing human and environmental wellbeing. Yet in some countries, scientists face serious threats that undermine their scientific freedom and human rights.

Standing up for scientists’ rights

The Council’s Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science (CFRS) is the guardian of the ISC’s work on the right to engage in scientific enquiry, to pursue and communicate knowledge, and to associate freely in such activities. The Committee’s engagement in this area is based on ISC’s Statute 7, and underpinned by international human rights instruments relevant to science and scientists.

ISC Statute 7: The Principle of Freedom and Responsibility

The free and responsible practice of science is fundamental to scientific advancement and human and environmental well-being. Such practice, in all its aspects, requires freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable access to data, information, and other resources for research. It requires responsibility at all levels to carry out and communicate scientific work with integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness, and transparency, recognizing its benefits and possible harms. In advocating the free and responsible practice of science, the Council promotes equitable opportunities for access to science and its benefits, and opposes discrimination based on such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age.

CFRS works to protect at-risk researchers, monitoring cases of scientists whose rights and freedoms may be restricted. The Committee is currently monitoring several cases in which scientists have been detained as a result of their research.

In January 2018, nine researchers associated with the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation were detained by Iranian authorities. The team of environmental scientists and conservationists includes Niloufar Bayani, a former project consultant for UN Environment. One of the founders of the organization, Iranian-Canadian sociologist and conservationist Professor Kavous Seyed Emami, died in custody on 9 February 2018. The rest of the group received sentences of between four- and ten-years’ imprisonment, which were upheld in February 2020 by the Iranian appeals court.

Ms. Bayani and three of her colleagues face charges of “sowing corruption on earth,” a charge which can carry the death penalty. Reports indicate that the conservationists have been subjected to long periods of solitary confinement, and granted limited access to family and legal support. Letters written by Ms. Bayani from Evin Prison detail psychological and physical torture as well as threats of sexual violence. These reports are of major concern to both the scientific and international human rights community. 

Professor Craig Callender is Co-Director of the Institute for Practical Ethics at the University of California and a member of CFRS. For Professor Callender, his work with the Committee is a valuable opportunity to stand up for scientists’ rights:

“By bringing attention to at-risk scientists, I hope to help secure the release and freedom of scientists who have been unjustly detained. But zooming out, I also hope that the continued mobilization of groups against such detainments makes the strategy of using scientists as pawns in political games an unsuccessful one.”

Challenging attacks on scientific freedom

In December 2020, the ISC also expressed its grave concern for the well-being of Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish scholar of disaster medicine, who is at imminent risk of execution in Iran.

Dr Djalali was placed in solitary confinement by Iranian authorities in November 2020. On 24 November, he telephoned his wife for what he said would be his last farewell. Yet he remains in prison, with rapidly deteriorating health concerns, having been held in solitary confinement for over 100 days.

Dr Djalali was arrested in April 2016 while travelling to participate in a series of workshops hosted by universities in Tehran and Shiraz. On 21 October 2017, Dr Djalali was convicted and sentenced to death based on allegations that he had provided intelligence to the Israeli authorities. He has disputed the allegations, asserting that his ties to the international academic community are the basis of his prosecution. He has been denied the right to appeal his conviction and sentence, and according to his family, he has been subjected to torture while in state custody.

Like the members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Dr Djalali has been denied the right to peacefully conduct his academic research and contribute fully to his speciality. These arrests, conviction and sentencing suggest a flagrant disregard for international standards of academic freedom, due process, fair trial, and humane treatment of prisoners, as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party. Furthermore, the UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers states that ‘Member States should guarantee that, for the health and safety of scientific researchers as of all other persons likely to be affected by the research and development activity in question, all national regulations, and the international instruments concerned with the protection of workers in general from hostile or dangerous environments, will be fully met’.

Beyond the devastating personal impacts on these scientists, their unjust treatment has a chilling effect on the wider scientific community. For Professor Callender, challenging these injustices is critical for protecting the future of scientific research:

“These detainments are trying to send a political message. The international science community can reply with its own message, which is that stifling science is ultimately self-defeating.”

Professor Enrique Forero, President of the Colombian Academy of Exact, Physical and Natural Sciences, and fellow member of CFRS, says he hopes to raise awareness of the great value of scientists to society through his work with the Committee:

“At-risk scientists are, above all, human beings who have devoted their lives to work in ways that benefit, not harm, humanity.”

This International Day of Solidarity for Detained and Missing Staff, the ISC supports the UN’s call for stronger efforts to protect UN staff and colleagues, and continues to advocate for justice and protection for at-risk scientists around the world.


Image: Mike Erskine on Unsplash

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