Scientists Must Protect and Promote Human Rights: It is Principled and in their Interest

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National science academy members worldwide, concerned about dozens of unjustly imprisoned colleagues (none of whom advocates violence but many are tortured, some are murdered) use their high-level connections, cultural/political knowledge, and personal prestige, along with that of their academies, to defend the rights of such colleagues and to ameliorate their plight. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the cornerstone of their efforts and includes rights essential to scientists and scientific progress.

The speaker will describe selected science and human rights issues around the globe, individual cases, and how scientists and their academies help resolve them.

This lecture is a part of the 80th Anniversary Celebrations of CARA (Council for Assisting Refugee Academics).


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9 December 2013


Scientists should act to protect and promote Human Rights –

For both Scientific and Humanitarian Reasons


Carol Corillon



I am honored that CARA asked me to give this lecture on its 80th anniversary. CARA has much to celebrate, and I am delighted to contribute my own heartfelt congratulations. I am, in fact, a grateful, though indirect, beneficiary of CARA’s rescue operations; Max Perutz being the direct recipient, so it is work is particularly close to my heart.


I have a goal in speaking to you tonight—toencourage each of you to help promote and defend human rights, as scientists, as supporters of science, and as people of conscience. I hope to do this by telling you something of my work. 


I am not a scientist, but, since the early 1980s, I have been privileged to direct the operations of the Committee on Human Rights (CHR). The committee is a joint activity of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine in the United States.


A statue of Albert Einstein in a casual seated position is on the front lawn of the academies’ home in Washington, D.C.—sometimes with squirming children on his knee or a young couple kissing in his shadow. In his hand is a paper with mathematical equations that summarize his most important scientific contributions. But Einstein symbolizes more that brilliant science. A German Jew who fled Nazi oppression, Einstein was a life-long advocate for human rights.  The quote on the steps of the statue reads:


As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.


According to Freedom House statistics, his choice of countries in which to live today would be limited to about 90, less than one-half the number of countries in the world  And more than a quarter of all the countries, 52, would be considered far below his criteria. 


Einstein also wrote: 


The existence and validity of human rights are not written in the stars.  The ideals concerning the conduct of men toward each other and the desirable structure of the community have been conceived and taught by enlightened individuals in the course of history.  Those ideals and convictions which resulted from historical experience, from the craving for beauty and harmony, have been readily accepted in theory by man—and at all times, have been trampled upon by the same people under the pressure of their animal instincts.  A large part of history is therefore replete with the struggle for those human rights, an eternal struggle in which a final victory can never be won.  But to tire in that struggle would mean the ruin of society.


I have been fortunate during the past 33 years to work with people who exemplified the combination of brilliant scientist and dedicated human rights advocate, in the model of Einstein. The scientists with whom I have been privileged to work have been guided by two goals:


1.  to defend those non-violent colleagues, worldwide, whose basic human rights are severely abused, simply because they exercise their rights—either as truth-seeking and truth-telling scientists or as responsible members of society who speak out against political wrongs; and


2.  to raise the consciousness of national academy members in all countries as to why scientists should promote human rights advocacy as a part of their lives as scientists. 


Over the years our human rights committee has worked on many kinds of human rights cases. They included:


·         physicists who have spoken up for peace or refused to work on nuclear-related projects;

·         statisticians who have published figures at odds with  rosy-coloured government statistics;

·         cultural anthropologists working with indigenous peoples who are threatened by government forces or vigilante groups; 

·         forensic anthropologists who are exhuming the bodies of those who disappeared during dictatorships and ruthless military rule and revealing the damning stories the corpses are able to tell;

·         environmentalists who have reported the actual or potential damage caused by massive deforestation;

·         engineers who expose shoddy school construction that has led to deaths of young children and lucrative dam projects that threaten the environment and the way of life of thousands of people;

·         other scientists who have revealed pollution caused by submarines leaking nuclear waste into the sea and health hazards caused by factories discharging toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. 


All of these scientists, our colleagues, have suffered repression because of their non-violent actions.


In recent years we have had dozens of cases of medical doctors targeted for arrest, torture, and even assassination for treating non-violent protestors who were injured by police and military personnel during their participation in demonstrations. We have had cases of scientists imprisoned for teaching students who are being excluded from education because of their religions or for expressing their secularist or religious beliefs. And we have even had cases of scientists murdered simply for being members of the intellectual elite.


The document that underpins our work is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As most of you surely know, the Declaration was written following World War II and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The Declaration is part of international customary law, and its 65th anniversary will be celebrated tomorrow, December 10th. 


If you have not read the declaration recently, I urge you to look at it again. It is a remarkable document in and of itself, and it has given rise to many related conventions and treaties and covenants that both underpin and expand the document itself. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies to all 193 member countries of the United Nations, which are expected to secure its recognition and observance.


For scientists, the Declaration has a particular importance because it includes rights that, when violated, can have a significant detrimental effect on science and scientists themselves, as well as on a nation's economy and the health and the well-being of its citizens. Many governments and even some scientists do not realize this connection between human rights and science.


The Declaration includes rights to "freedom of opinion and expression” and to “freedom of speech and movement."  Who could do science without these rights? And what about the ability to freely "seek, receive, and impart information and ideas, through any media and regardless of frontiers"? These are key elements of all scientific endeavours. There is also the right to "peaceful assembly and association."  And there is the right to “education and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”


When I first started working with our human rights committee, many members of the three U.S. academies were leery. “What does human right have to do with science?”  they asked.

“Human rights issues are political and have nothing to do with science. Science academies should not get involved in politics,” they said.


The answer to their questions is that one cannot separate human rights and science. The Declaration was drafted, according to the United Nations, to be “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations.” It was followed some years later by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which contains the so-called negative rights on which our committee focuses. These negative rights forbid governments from actions such as torture or arbitrary detention. These documents have become recognized as the foundations for inherent rights that are required for “the establishment of the rule of law at the national and international levels.” 


Today, more than 30 years after our tentative beginning, some 1,600 members of the three U.S. national academies help, morally and financially, support the work of their Committee on Human Rights. And, overall, the academies’ members have regularly voted our committee to be the most important membership activity of the academies. So we are proud. But, clearly, many more members—of our academies and science academies around the world—must be initiated, stimulated, and motivated to act. 


Our members have learned over the years that scientists in many countries can be arrested simply and solely for exercising their basic human rights. Some face arbitrary detention and arrest; others are denied any effective remedy to appeal or their appeals are summarily rejected by the national tribunals that are supposed to be responsible for ensuring fairness.


In a recent fact-finding mission to Turkey, I and several colleagues observed first-hand that people are regularly denied presumption of innocence and a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartialtribunal. In Bahrain, and Syria, and other countries, our colleagues are subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. All of these abuses are specifically prohibited under the Universal Declaration. 


Scientists become human rights defenders through different routes. Some have personally suffered or their families have suffered severe human rights violations. Others have won a Fields Medal, Nobel Prize, or other significant international recognition for their scientific work and find their sudden international recognition seems to carry with it a responsibility to use their world renown to become spokespersons or catalysts for human rights as a partner of science. 


As I prepared this talk, a chemist and life-long peace and human rights advocate whom I deeply admire, Canadian Nobel Laureate John Polanyi, told me:


The roots of science lie in the soil of freedom. This is because imagination inhabits the individual mind. Take away the freedom to dream, and the plant wilts. You cannot command it to flower. So, all that you are saying and doing for us has that value. But also it is intrinsically valuable, since what is required for science is what is required for human dignity. 


Still others have come to realize that, as members of a distinguished institution such as a national science academy, they can accomplish much more through a human rights committee than by acting solely as a private citizen. They have leverage and want to use it for a worthy purpose. 


My job is to find all of these scientists who want to work for human rights, tell them how they can help, and facilitate their actions. As Dr. Polanyi said, this has both the specific value of giving dignity to a human life and being of fundamental value to science as a whole. 


A founder and the second chairman of our human rights committee was, like Einstein, a scientist who had personally experienced what the absence of human rights can mean. He was a brilliant mathematician named Lipman Bers, a Latvian Jew. During his student years at the University of Riga, he involved himself in social politics and the police targeted him for arrest following the Lativan coup in 1934. He fled the country, earning a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1938 from the University of Prague. Soon after Nazi Germany annexed Czechoslovakia, he applied to study in Paris. Then, just days before the fall of Paris, he escaped with his young wife and baby girl to the South of France. From there they managed to get an emergency U.S. visa in Marseilles:  it was one of the visas that had been personally supported by Eleanor Roosevelt for Europe’s cultural elite. Dr Bers was fond of saying that it was Mrs. Roosevelt who brought him to the United States. 


Lipman Bers died in 1993 at the age of 79. In his lifetime, he never separated science and human rights.  And his vision for the academies’ committee on human rights was clear and a clarions call—to be a committee that would use the prestige of the institution and its members to pressure governments to resolve the cases of peaceful scientific colleagues who had disappeared or who had been unjustly imprisoned or threatened. 


Lipman never took freedom for granted, not for others, not for himself. In his successful plea to the council of the National Academy of Sciences to make a public statement on behalf of Andrei Sakharov, Lipman said:  “When Sakharov began speaking out about victims of injustice, he risked everything, and he never knew whether his intervention might help.” Lipman then asked the Council members, “Should we, living in a free country, do less?” Lipman won the day.


At Lipman’s memorial service I learned that when a colleague refused to sign a petition for a fellow scientist who was unjustly imprisoned, Lipman was heard to say under his breath, “The hottest spot in hell is reserved for those who are eternally neutral.”  I know he meant the humanist secular hell because, although he was pleased to stand with me under the chuppah at my wedding, he flatly refused to wear a yarmulke!


The group of people who have turned to active work in human rights after receiving prestigious honors is large.  Although our committee is quite small, with only about a dozen members who rotate roughly every six years, we currently have three Nobel Laureates—Martin Chalfie, Leland Hartwell, and Anthony Leggett. Since the committee’s creation in 1976, we have had 17 Nobel Laureate members. 


Three chaired the committee—Baruch Blumberg (who you lured away to become Master of Balliol College at Oxford), Torsten Wiesel, and Peter Agre.  Dr. Wiesel agreed to chair the committee shortly after becoming president of The Rockefeller University—as though he did not have enough on his plate—and he continued in that position for ten years. Peter Agre, who had worked with us on a serious case in the United States before he won the Nobel Prize, telephoned my home a few days after the prize was announced to say if we wanted another Nobel Laureate to chair our committee, he would be honored to serve. Needless to say, we were thrilled to have him.


Another Nobel Laureate, Gerard Debreu, along with Baruch Blumberg, went on a fact-finding mission to Chile in 1985, after more than a dozen doctors had been sent into internal exile for documenting evidence of torture in examining their patients. The horrendous photos of torture victims that we were shown by one doctor who escaped arrest will forever remain vividly etched in my brain. But I also remember how delighted, if slightly dumbfounded, we were when the exiled doctors were brought by train back to Santiago and freed—just hours before we left. 


The trip to Chile had been made possible by another Nobel Laureate, Christian Anfinsen.  He paved the way by sharing a quiet smoke with the Chilean Ambassador to Washington, while I simply stood by, breathing into my shirt collar. 


Lawrence Klein, who sadly died a few weeks ago, participated in a trip to Somalia in 1987. A large group of students, who could not get into the overcrowded room where he spoke, climbed to the rooftop and into the open windows to hear him speak. I believe he was the first, and probably remains the only, Nobel Laureate to visit and lecture in the country. 


We were there to appeal for the release of a dozen Somali scientists from the Hargeisa region in the north of the country. They had been meeting with residents in the local community to discuss civic grievances, including neglect of schools and the local hospital.  They all decided to clean and paint those structures, and that act was viewed as treasonous by the Somali dictator, Siad Barre. They were arrested, severely tortured, and held in solitary confinement without trial for seven years. 


After our visit, most of the prisoners for whom we appealed in our subsequent report, were initially sentenced to death. Then, following an international outcry, they were released.  One had suffered a mental breakdown and has never recovered. The others have resumed their lives and are contributing members of society. 


About a year later most of them came to our academy to celebrate—bringing their wives and children.  They thanked us again and again, not only with words but also by playing musical instruments and reciting poems. They presented us with a plaque that showed the knocking alphabet they had developed to communicate from cell to cell. Some of them still remain in touch with us.


Many years after the trip, Larry Klein told the president of our academy that his participation in the Somali mission was one of the most important things he did in his life.


Although our trips to visit imprisoned colleagues and learn more about sometimes terrible situations are often sad, the rewards from colleagues whose conditions of imprisonment are improved or who are freed are beyond measure. To know that we have helped to free unjustly imprisoned scientists, engineers, and medical doctors is, as Larry Klein said, one of the most important things we all can do. 


And almost every trip has also brought memories of incidents that are not at all grim.  For example, when we went on the fact-finding mission to Chile in 1985, we arrived in Santiago shortly after a devastating earthquake and in the midst of aftershocks that put us out of our hotel in the middle of the night, during a curfew, in our nightclothes. Although the electricity had gone out, the revolving lights from the circling military patrol vehicles in the square revealed that Gerard Debreu, a Frenchman, was decked out in elegant pajamas, slippers, and a silk paisley bathrobe, while Baruch Blumberg sported a T-shirt and jogging shorts. As for my own attire . . .  Suffice it to say that Gerard was, by far, the best dressed among us.


In a mission to Guatemala in 1992, we urged that those members of the military, who ordered the brutal murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang, the day after she published a book with Georgetown University on the plight of the indigenous peoples, be brought to justice. We five delegates were surprised when a general, who was widely believed to be involved in torture, disappearances, and murders, that plagued the country at the time, agreed to meet with us in our hotel. There was a small living room on the 10th floor so we decided to talk to him there.The general looked as though he came from central casting, with a large, barrel chest, black hair, and a pock-marked face. He surveyed us and the room and then walked to the picture window, where he stood looking out for quite some time.


He then sat down on a sofa, facing the door, with his back to the window. We took the other seats facing him.  About ten minutes into the conversation, two men dressed in brown shirts, trousers, and shoes, suddenly came swinging past the window, suspended from ropes. While we mission members contemplated falling to the floor and covering our heads, the general, oblivious to the commotion behind him, talked on.  After the men got toeholds on the sill, a bucket swung down and they began washing our window. We never learned whether they were the general’s body guards, would-be assassins, or simply window washers with a dangerous sense of timing.


Another strange adventure occurred in Somalia. We had been told that if we wanted to get information on our cases, we should go to midnight mass in the nearby Catholic Church. We were to seat ourselves in the balcony after the service began and then, about mid-way through, when the lights were lowered and everyone went forward to take communion, we were to slip into the darkened courtyard where one of the priests would flash a light so we could approach and talk to him without being seen. We were lucky that one of the delegates on that mission was Francisco Ayala, who had been ordained as a Dominican priest, and he took the lead in our cloak and dagger adventure. Larry Klein and I, never having attended a Catholic service, followed his lead, and our meeting went off without a hitch. 


I also will not forget the gallantry of my two male companions on our mission to India. But first I will tell you about the mission. 


Our trip to India was in 2009, and our small delegation included Nobel Laureate Robert Curl. We were concerned about a revered medical doctor, Binayak Sen, who was unjustly imprisoned in the Raipur Central prison in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. We were accompanied by Arjuna Aluwihare, a medical doctor who had been president of the Sri Lanka Academy of Sciences and whose father had been imprisoned with Gandhi.  Over several days, the three of us sat on a narrow wooden bench for many hours in the prison yard before getting permission to meet with Dr. Sen. We were the sole foreigners permitted to visit him in the prison during his two-year incarceration, and only Dr. Curl was permitted to speak. The Raipur Central prison is the most crowded of all five overcrowded prisons in Chhattisgarh state. It has a capacity of 1,130 and held 2,248 at about the time of our visit. Dr. Sen was held with 14 other prisoners in a 100 square-foot cell. He told us that the other inmates give him a curtained-off corner of the cell for himself so he could have some privacy and room to sleep. 


Dr. Sen had spent his life in remote medical clinics, treating impoverished indigenous peoples, training them in basic medical care, and helping them gain access to their fundamental rights. He was charged with “waging a war against the state,”found guilty of sedition and conspiracy, and sentenced to life in prison by a lower court in Chhattisgarh in 2010. Fortunately, he was granted bail by the Supreme Court in 2011. Today, an appeal against his conviction is still pending in the Chhattisgarh High Court.

In Dr. Sen’s case, in addition to our mission and meetings with government officials and scientific colleagues in India, 40 Nobel Laureates had signed a petition for his release from prison. Meanwhile prominent members of all three Indian academies formed a “Council of Elders,” that endorsed the petition by the Nobel Laureates. These efforts, like many others, gained considerable press coverage in India and abroad.


In India, after all the hours in the courtyard, when finally we were told that we could enter the Raipur Central Prison, instead of opening the large main door through which inmates exited, we were told that we had to go through a small arched door that was only about 4 feet high. To enter, one had to stoop and lower the head, making it impossible to see what was waiting on the interior. Being gentlemen, Bob Curl—who is about 6 feet tall, and Arjuna Aluwihare, insisted that I go first. For a fleeting moment, as I practically crawled through the opening, I worried that my two companions would not be allowed to follow me. That was perhaps the only time in my life that I would have preferred rudeness to gallantry.


Before I turn more concretely to what you in the audience can do, I want to tell you about our most recent trip, to Turkey. 


Over the past two decades we have made two trips. The first was in the mid-1990s, when the country was under military rule. Torsten Wiesel and I gave human rights talks at the Turkish Academy of Sciences, which, unfortunately, was nationalized a few years ago. We also visited the outspoken engineers’ union and a Kurdish torture treatment center.


Then, earlier this year, Nobel Laureate Peter Diamond participated in our second mission to Turkey to investigate the cases of six outspoken, secularist colleagues had been charged terrorism in a massive and blatantly unjust ongoing trial called Ergenekon. We were also concerned about two other cases. One is that of a professor of political science and a peace and human rights advocate who was charged in a trial related to a pro-Kurdish political party, a trial that is still ongoing. The other case is that of an engineer, who has a PhD from MIT, and had been sentenced to 13 years in prison in an earlier and also massive trial in which he was one of only two civilians. He had been charged, along with several hundred high-level military officers, in yet another terrorism trial known as Sledgehammer. We were permitted to visit him and three former university rectors in high-security prisons in Ankara and outside Istanbul. 


As we did with several of our previous missions, we published a report on our visit and circulated it as widely as our small budget would permit—both electronically and in hard copy. Those documents are available on our website at


The Turkish engineer was recently released on lack of evidence by an appeals court. Five of the medical doctors were sentenced in the Ergenekon trial to between 10 and 23 years in prison—two are in prison today (one of whom is in very poor mental and physical health). Three other medical doctors (including a renowned transplant surgeon whom we had visited), who had been held in pretrial detention for more than four years, are now free pending a decision by the appeals court. The former head of Turkey’s Council of Higher Education has been sentenced to almost 14 years in prison in the Ergenekon trial and is also charged in what is called the Post-Modern Coup Trial, which has just begun. He was imprisoned for 438 days and attempted suicide a few months after our visit. Thankfully, he is now free on bail pending the decision of the appeals court in the Ergenekon trial and a verdict in his second, ongoing trial. Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do in Turkey, including, perhaps, a return visit. 


Now I would like to talk briefly about our International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies. Like the U.S. committee, it also comes to the aid of individual colleagues, but, it also often addresses issues that relate to science and human rights. The Network was created in 1993 by four people, three of them Nobel Laureates—Francois Jacob from France, Max Perutz from the United Kingdom, and Torsten Wiesel from Sweden. The fourth founding member was Pieter van Dijk, from the Netherlands, who was a member of its Council of State and a judge on the European Court of Human Rights.


In her book, Max Perutz and the Secret of Life, Georgina Ferry recounts that Dr. Perutz had written to his son Robin with regard to our Network, saying


The people who run this committee are idealists with a thoroughly practical bent and a shrewd understanding of human nature. It is a pleasure to work with them.


I can assure you that it was both a pleasure and an honor to work with all four of the founding members.  Sadly, both Max Perutz and Francois Jacob are no longer with us. The other founding members, Torsten Wiesel and Pieter van Dijk, served for 14 and 16 years, respectively—service that was critical to creating the structure, goals, and admirable record of the Network. 


We now have an Executive Committee of 11 prominent scientists from around the world, and we will be adding two members from Africa and another from Asia in the coming months. The human rights committee at the U.S. National Academies serves as the Network’s secretariat. 


We began the Network with about a dozen national academies. Today, 80 academies are affiliated with the Network, and many of them are active. Several dozens of these academies have created their own human rights committees. They are also active in responding to Action Alerts issued by the Network secretariat, sending cases for investigation to the secretariat, and contributing statements of support when the Executive Committee issues a press release.


The Network’s press releases have addressed a wide range of troubling issues, including:


·          concern about education restrictions on Iranian women;

·         an appeal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assadregarding the need to respect medical neutrality;

·         an expression of deep distress regarding the Turkish government’s decree that would restructure its science academy and effectively remove its independence; and

·          an appeal for medical workers in Bahrain who were convicted of crimes solely for carrying out their medical work as required of all doctors. 


Many times, our appeals and statements of concern have led to changes in policy or the amelioration of bad situations.  And we have learned important lessons from our work. One lesson is that even dictatorial and capricious leaders want to look good. We can appeal to their egos and vanity, approach them as if they are humanitarians, and use the cultural and political knowledge of the Network’s members. We are listened to—not every time and not to the degree we would like—but we are heard. 


To return to Einstein’s words, with which I began this talk:  “The struggle for human rights [is] an eternal struggle in which a final victory can never be won.” Yet, we know that the struggle is not in vain, and many more scientists can and should be part of it. Our efforts save lives and strengthen science. 


© Carol Corillon, 2013

This event was on Mon, 09 Dec 2013


Carol Corillon

Carol Corillon has worked with the Committee on Human Rights (CHR) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute...

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