The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Science, A Human Right

19 January 2011

The UN and the Right to Science
Did you know that the United Nations has 16 multilateral Human Rights Treaties, and that the United States has failed to ratify 12 of these? These treaties relate to human rights as fundamental as the rights of women, children, the disabled, and migrant workers.

One such treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), highlights the centrality of science – its practice and dissemination – as a human right. Article 15 of the Covenant states that:

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone:

(a) To take part in cultural life;
(b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;
(c) To benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture.

3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.

4. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the benefits to be derived from the encouragement and development of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific and cultural fields.

Why are these Rights Important?

These rights are vital to the progress of science in crucial areas of human interest from the discovery of disease treatments to the tools to tackle global warming, and the knowledge for social, economic, and cultural development. Despite this, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says that the global community is not doing enough to uphold them. It’s Network for Education and Academic Rights (NEAR) receives daily alerts on breaches of academic freedom worldwide, and these don’t represent the vast majority of cases which go unreported. Moreover, threats to individual scientists are just one indicator of the infringement on the right to the benefits of science for all members of society.

What is the Scientific Community Doing?
Scientists are proactive in the support of science but more can be done to advocate their cause. In 2009, one of the founders of NEAR, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), launched its Human Rights Coalition which aims to bring science and human rights organizations together to jointly develop efforts to support and build human rights in this area. In addition, its join initiative on Article 15 aims to improve understanding of the Article and to work with the UN and the scientific community on its application. 

This project gains further momentum this year as the United States will be reporting to the UN on its status on the ratification of the ICESCR and the other human rights treaties. The UN Human Rights Council’s review of the US was the largest and most far-reaching since the Universal Periodic Review of countries began in 2006, and the world is waiting to see how the US will respond.

The SPSSI United Nations Group

The SPSSI Policy Hub

The AAAS Human Rights Coalition

The Network for Education and Academic Rights (NEAR)

United Nations Treaty Collection

The United States’ Universal Periodic Review

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

Back to SPSSI Policy News

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin