Programs: Science and Policy
AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program
AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition
Helping Your Scientific Society Promote Human Rights
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Human Rights: A Basic Overview
Human rights are fundamental entitlements needed to safeguard every person’s dignity and promote the realization of each person’s full potential. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights describes human rights as:
Until the end of World War II, how a government treated its citizens was largely seen as its own internal affair. With the creation of the United Nations (UN) in 1945 and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN General Assembly in 1948, however, citizens’ rights became the legitimate concern of all states and their inhabitants.
The UN Charter commits each member state to take action to promote “universal respect for and observance of human rights.” Giving substance to this commitment is the international bill of rights. The bill of rights is comprised of the UDHR and two international treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Below are examples of the rights contained within each.
Example: The right to education must be accompanied by the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information. Similarly, the right to health is unattainable for many without the right to benefit from scientific progress.
Governments have the primary responsibility, both within their own territory and in their activities overseas, to adhere to human rights standards and law. Specifically, governments must:
Example: Governments must respect the right of students to learn about science by not removing funding for basic science education; they must protect students against restrictions on what is taught as part of science curricula, and not allow, for example, political, religious, or moral ideology to dictate curricula and science content; and they must dedicate adequate resources for the training of qualified science teachers.
The role of governments in a context of limited resources
Governments are required, individually and through international cooperation, to implement their human rights obligations to “the maximum of their available resources.” In certain circumstances, full realization of rights is not expected, but progressive realization is required. That is, governments must take documentable and visible steps toward meeting their obligations and may not take deliberately retrogressive steps.
What is more, human rights protection does not always require an outlay of financial resources. The duty to “respect” human rights, for example, is a responsibility to refrain from violating human rights, and often would not require expenditure of financial resources. In addition, the realization of many human rights requires a reassessment of funding priorities in a way that saves money, rather than requires more spending.
Example: To remove barriers to girls’ participation in science education or to international collaboration among scientists principally requires policy changes rather than financial resources. Ensuring universal access to basic water and sanitation contributes to the realization of the right to the benefits of scientific progress, and goes toward redressing systemic discrimination while reducing health-related costs.
Each human rights treaty has a corresponding treaty-monitoring body. Some of these bodies have the power to hear complaints from individuals against governments that have ratified the specific treaty. Decisions of the treaty-monitoring bodies, however, are not well enforced, relying heavily on the will of governments and the strength of civil society to demand compliance with human rights laws.
Other enforcement mechanisms exist at the regional and national levels and are often more effective than the international mechanisms at ensuring compliance with human rights:
Ultimately, the enforcement of human rights requires the engagement and commitment of a strong civil society to demand of governments that they comply with their human rights obligations.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) represents the world's commitment to universal ideals of human dignity. It has a unique mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights.
Human Rights Council
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Frequently asked questions on a human rights-based approach to development cooperation. New York and Geneva, United Nations, 2006.
(page updated 10/02/2012)