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The Human Rights of Scientists

THE WORLD OF SCIENCE AND THE RULE OF LAW A Study of the Observance and Violations of the Human Rights of Scientists in the Participating States of the Helsinki Accords. John Ziman, Paul Sieghart and John Humphrey. Oxford University Press, New York, 1986. 351 pp. $37.   This is a book of major importance for those concerned with human rights and with the special problems that arise in defending the human rights of scientists. Of the three authors, Paul Sieghart is an eminent jurist in intern

By | November 17, 1986

THE WORLD OF SCIENCE AND THE RULE OF LAW

A Study of the Observance and Violations of the Human Rights of Scientists in the Participating States of the Helsinki Accords.

John Ziman, Paul Sieghart and John Humphrey.
Oxford University Press, New York,
1986. 351 pp. $37.
 

This is a book of major importance for those concerned with human rights and with the special problems that arise in defending the human rights of scientists.

Of the three authors, Paul Sieghart is an eminent jurist in international law and John Ziman and John Humphrey are notable scientists, a physicist and an immunologist respectively. Both Ziman and Humphrey have been concerned for years with the larger implications of science for the future of the world and of human welfare.

As the subtitle indicates, the focus of the book is on human rights in the 35 countries that signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Except for the United States and Canada, all are European countries, al though the Soviet Union is also a great Asiatic power. Thus the book excludes consideration of Latin America, Africa and Asia except for the Soviet Union. However, in its presentation of the status of human rights today in international law it deals with matters of universal import.

Chapter 2 contains a valuable summary of the multilateral treaties, codes and covenants dealing with human rights: the United Nations Universal Declaration of 1948 (the UDHR); the subsequent international covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights; and the European conventions that apply to the 21 states belonging to the Council of Europe. The extensive appendixes contain the complete text of the UDHR and the most important parts of some of the other covenants.

Scientists of course can claim no rights that do not also apply to other persons, but for them some rights are of particular importance. No one can become a scientist without advanced education and long training; discrimination on grounds of race, sex, religion, or social class can block entry to school or university and end all opportunity for a scientific career. The practicing scientist needs freedom to communicate with others by mail and telephone and by personal visits; freedom to attend meetings and associate with others, both within his or her own country and abroad; freedom to express opinion; freedom to seek and accept suitable work and not to be fired on arbitrary grounds.

In countries that have signed the international conventions, these freedoms are legally guaranteed to all. They are important for everyone, but especially so for scientists, whose work may be gravely crippled, or brought to a halt, if they are infringed.

A series of chapters examines the actual status of such rights in the countries that have signed the Helsinki Accords. The authors review the numerous grave violations of such rights, most notably in the countries of eastern Europe and especially the Soviet Union. Most readers will already be aware of many of these cases, but few will have such a comprehensive picture as that given here. The countries of the West, although the situation is far better there, do not come off with a clean slate; for instance, the discussion emphasizes the injustices that can arise from applications of the British Official Secrets Act and the grave trends toward interference with free scientific
communication in the United States in the last few years.

A central theme is the nature of open science-a worldwide network that can function well only in an atmosphere of freedom, guaranteed by observance of human rights. Such international cooperation becomes increasingly essential now that many great problems are worldwide: the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, and the destruction of tropical rain forests, for instance. The authors refer also to another world of science, where workers are sworn to secrecy by their military or industrial employers; in one place they suggest that perhaps 30 percent of all scientists today belong to this secret world. Secrecy pervades much of the scientific establishment in the Soviet Union, and it is growing in the United States with the increasing militarization of science under the Reagan administration.

There is a good discussion of the problems of defending the human rights of scientists who are victims of persecution, and the various steps that may be taken in trying to aid them, without breaking off communication between countries with different ideologies.

All in all, this book deserves the attention of all concerned with the special problems of human rights in the scientific community. More-over it has broader implications for humanity in general.

Edsall is a professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.
 

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