In May, I found myself sitting with the paediatrician president of the Tanzanian Academy of Sciences, a Ghanaian lawyer involved in restoring the rule of law in Liberia, an Anglo-American Nobel laureate and about 40 others listening not to science, but to first-hand accounts of experiences of human rights violations.
- A Turkish academic described how she had been imprisoned for her views and how scientists lose their jobs because of their academic work. At least conditions in Turkey are relatively mild, by her account.
- A Syrian who had also been jailed left us to imagine how he had been treated, but the consequences of peaceful campaigning for human rights were all too clear. He had only been released through pressure by CNN news.
There are signs of improvement in a few countries, notably in Tunisia, but as we heard from a Tunisian physicist, there is still uncertainty over how the new constitution will be implemented in practice. We also heard from Richard Roberts FRS who has worked hard to mobilise fellow Nobel laureates to work to prevent human rights violations.
I was the Royal Society’s representative at the conference of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies meeting at Germany’s Leopoldina academy in Halle, south of Berlin.
The brief of the Network is to campaign for individuals who are mistreated as a result of their academic work. This could be someone who is prevented from investigating the ecological effects of a hydroelectric scheme, for example, or someone who teaches science that conflicts with religious views. Their website also features the press release from the meeting.
That advances in science are disruptive to religion and government has been conspicuous since the days of Copernicus – even in recent times in the UK, the notion that BSE might be transmitted to humans was anathema to government.
However, I came away thinking that the distinction between human rights abuse suffered in relation to the science and more general violations ceases to be meaningful when the whole society breaks down, as in Syria or Egypt. For instance, medics treating the ‘wrong’ side in Bahrain have been sentenced to long jail terms, while those in Syria have been brutally treated.
Another really worrying development is happening not at the individual level, but at the level of the whole student body. In Iran, women are now banned from undergraduate study of a whole range of subjects including chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, archaeology and many others – a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The work of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies has received good coverage in the scientific press over the last few years and we heard plenty of encouragement to keep campaigning.
There are several great examples of people who have been released following external pressure including that exerted by the Network. It would be good to see some more discussion of human rights among scientists and I hope the Royal Society can remain active in this area.