Science & Human Rights

As part of its mandate to promote the free and responsible practice of science, CFRS works at the intersections between science and human rights.

Protecting scientists’ rights

The term “human rights” refers to a set of legal claims to protection and benefits that are anchored in internationally recognized human rights statements, treaties and instruments. These include the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and two subsequent treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). This understanding of “human rights” includes legal obligations on states and their agents to respect human rights, to promote human rights, and to protect people in their territories against human rights violations. 

The term “scientific freedom” does not expressly appear in these legal obligations, but much of the meaning of scientific freedom is covered by the protections included in human rights instruments. These include, for example, protections for the freedom of opinion and expression, the right to education, and the right to freedom from discrimination based on ethnic origin, religion, citizenship,  sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, age, or other grounds. 

Threats to freedom arise from general attacks on the values of science such as those driven by government policy or the socio-economic environment, and through individual cases of discrimination, harassment or restriction of movement. Their settings are often complex, and it may be difficult to disentangle the scientific, political, human rights or socio-economic aspects of specific cases.  

CFRS monitors individual and generic cases of scientists whose freedoms and rights are restricted as a result of carrying out their scientific research, or while acting as scientists, and provides assistance in such cases where its intervention can provide relief and support activities of other relevant actors. CFRS’s engagement in this area is based on ISC’s Statute 7 and underpinned by international codes and standards relevant to science and scientists. 


Providing assistance for scientists 

Potential cases typically arise through media coverage, or are brought to the Committee’s attention by ISC Members, affiliated bodies and partners. When a new case is raised, CFRS decides whether to respond with a course of action, or to monitor the matter for further developments.  

Actions are determined on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the sensitivity and severity of the situation, and the views of relevant ISC Members. Potential actions include: 

  • Letters: private or open letters may be sent by the Chair of CFRS or the ISC President to relevant ISC Members, institutions, or Heads of States. 
  • Announcements: public comments about cases may be made on social media and/or the ISC website. 
  • Statements: a public position may be adopted by the CFRS and endorsed by the ISC Governing Board. 
  • Commentaries: commentaries in the form of opinion pieces, editorials, etc. may be published by members of CFRS.  

The Chair of CFRS acts on the advice of members of the Committee. In certain circumstances, the Chair may recommend action by the ISC Governing Board or President. Where CFRS decides to act on a case, this would typically be preceded by correspondence with the relevant ISC Member/s. It is and often the case that Members also act, e.g. by issuing their own statement or publicizing the matter on social media. 

For detailed information of the Committee’s actions, see the CFRS meeting reports. Privacy and confidentiality are often factors in responding to individual cases, particularly where judicial processes or imprisonment are involved. ISC’s response may not be able to be published in such cases. 


Examples of case actions by CFRS 

For more details on how CFRS selects and responds to cases, please refer to this CFRS Advisory Note.


Partner organizations

Information about cases may be shared with other organisations with an interest in human rights and academic freedoms. CFRS closely works with the following organisations at the global level, as appropriate: 


Benefits from scientific progress

The right “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” is stipulated in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which entered into force in 1976. CFRS has worked with the United Nations on this issue over the past few years, consulting on the conceptual and practical issues at the interface between science and human rights. Similarly, CFRS has championed the UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers, which recognises the “significant value of science as a common good”, and reinforces the importance of both scientific freedom and responsibility in realizing this value.

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