Human rights: a responsibility of scientific organisations too

A 30 years old Iranian physicist, called Omid Kokabee, languishes in jail in Teheran since January 2010. He has been condemned to 10 years for spying for the US government. He started his PhD at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona, Spain, in 2007 and subsequently continued it at the University of Texas at Austin, US, for a few months at the end of 2010. He claims—in an open letter authenticated by his close contacts—that the actual reason for his jailing stems from his refusal to work in military nuclear projects for the Iranian government.

To date, his situation has triggered official statements and campaigns from several major scientific societies, human rights organisation, and the United Nations. But does it make sense that scientific organisations care about human rights issues, beyond their main, scientific mission? Is it useful? Or even desirable?

Scientists subjected to human rights violations themselves believe that human rights cannot be disentangled from research, as science does not happen in a vacuum. “Science in itself is not politics, but sometimes scientists must care about political issues in order to be able to do science”, says Kamiar Alaei. He and his brother Arash, an Iranian doctor who met Kokabee in jail in 2011, were jailed in 2008 under the conservative Ahmadinejad government. This followed their involvement in a prevention project against AIDS—an illness often silenced in Iran, for being associated with drug addiction and homosexuality. They were eventually set free in 2010 and 2011, mostly thanks to a campaign by Physicians for Human Rights.

The trouble is if scientific organisations do not get involved in human rights issues, freedom to do research may be limited. “Scientists’ role includes making sure that it will be possible to do science in the future, [all over] the world”, Kamiar notes. Research may be limited in many ways. For example, “poor human rights standards mean restrictions on travel and on research topics, and this result in less conferences attended and hosted, and less internationally respected publications,” says Clare Robinson, director of protection services of the human rights organisation Scholars at Risk, based in New York, US, adding: “It is an invisible presence that distorts the environment scientists are working in.”

It is difficult to know the extent of the violation of scientists’ human rights, let alone to estimate of the exact number of people affected. “There may be thousands of academics in jail: the hundred known cases are the tip of the iceberg”, says Eugene Chudnovsky, president of the US-based Committee of Concerned Scientists. Chudnovsky was under surveillance of the KGB in the 1970s and 1980s, in Russia.

Among the countries associated with more alerts of human rights violation, the track record of Iran, China, and Russia is the poorest, according to data of the international NGO Network for Education and Academic Rights. But these countries are not alone. For example, the Iranian electrical engineer Seyed Motjaba Atarodi was kept in house arrest from 2011 to 2013 under suspicion of violating the US ban on trade with Iran, after purchasing items for his laboratory. He was subsequently set free under unclear circumstances, and sent back to his country.

Even though preventing human rights violation is tricky, scientific organisations certainly have a role to play in progressing human rights cases. “Scientific organisations can be more powerful in triggering changes, because they are more neutral than NGOs and other international entities”, says Kamiar Alaei. Their increasing commitment with human rights may have made a difference. “I have been involved in academics’ human rights during the last 35 years, and I have seen the situation improve notably, so there are reasons for insisting, and hoping”, points out Chudnovsky.

“Scientists’ involvement does not grant that Kokabee will be set free, but the more organisation speak up, the greater pressure the Iranian government will feel,” concludes Robinson, “and the more likely it is that improvements in prison conditions are obtained, and even liberation becomes more likely.”

Featured image credit: Omid Kokabee

Michele Catanzaro

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Michele Catanzaro is an Italian journalist based in Barcelona, Spain. He has a PhD in Physics and works as a freelance for Nature, Physics World, El Periódico de Catalunya, Spain, Le Scienze, Italy,and other media. He is the co-author of the book Networks: A Very Short Introduction and of the documentary Fast Track Injustice: The Óscar Sánchez Case.
Michele Catanzaro

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