Plenary Session: Reviving the Human Right to Science
Introductory remarks by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
8 October 2021
I am delighted to be part of this important discussion.
Every day, I feel in awe with scientific and technological progress.
Not that long ago, I remember waiting for the morning newspaper, to receive news of the day before.
Now, everything is reported in real time and through ever evolving communications methods and channels.
Today, we share information easily and we even have robots to assist in many spheres of life. With cameras, we can visit anyone, anywhere in the world, and many of us are forever grateful for that, in the recent times away from family and friends during lockdown.
As a medical doctor, I have seen so many advances in medical science – enough to amaze me for the rest of my life.
As they should everyone. It is within our right.
So, what is the human right to science exactly?
It is a right placed in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states the right of everyone to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. That it reinforced by Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR) which, as of July 2020, had 170 States Parties voluntarily assuming this article as a legal obligation.
The human right to science is more than access to knowledge. It is also a tool for the realization of other human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as food, water, housing, education, and health.
But, sadly, it is still far from being a reality for everyone.
Nowhere is this more visible now than with the case of vaccine injustice – which restricts people’s rights to life and health, to development and to the benefits of scientific progress.
The pace at which we gained scientific knowledge has been extraordinary, and countless lives have been saved. By August 2021, almost 5 billion vaccine doses had been administered. But the vaccine gap between rich and poor is a stark example of the severity of inequalities we should never grow accustomed to. More than 80% of the doses administered globally had gone to high- and upper-middle income countries, even though they account for less than half of the world’s population.
The lack of access to vaccines and medicines puts millions of lives in developing countries in immediate danger. It also poses a threat to people everywhere, as mutating forms of the virus may emerge among largely unvaccinated populations.
The pandemic also has demonstrated that access to digital technology and the internet plays an essential role in disseminating public health information, ensuring incomes during lockdowns and enabling that children to continue their education. But once again, a huge part of the population has been left behind.
As in every right, the right to science must be accessible by all and benefit for everyone’s participation, without discrimination.
In addition, it mandates that scientific innovations benefit people, rather than harm them. But here too, there is often a gap between what should happen and what actually happens.
For example, while Artificial Intelligence can help improve productivity, monitor epidemics, or support economic growth, it can also have built-in discriminatory effects. Openness and transparency in the development of AI algorithms can help prevent people from being discriminated against, based on characteristics such as their race, age, sex or disability.
It is also important to see that science is developed while respecting human rights. The improvement of public policy and governance through science-policy interface can be undermined if scientists are harassed for speaking out about their findings or been denied fundamental freedoms to carry out their work.
The Right to Science is not widely known and all of us can help change that. Because respecting human rights is essential to creating the world we all want to live in.