Science, Technology, the Environment, and Human Rights

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Science, Technology, the Environment, and Human Rights

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Looking at Science and Technology from a Human Rights Perspective


The following questions help to analyze technological innovations, scientific discoveries, and environmental crises from a human rights perspective. The technologies might be historical (e.g., development of the cast-metal plow, the compass, the printing press, the cotton gin, dynamite) or current (e.g., space exploration, genetic engineering, electronic communications).


PART A: Questions

1. About a technological advance, historical or contemporary:

  • Overall, has this technology had a positive or negative effect on human rights? How?

  • In what ways does this technology strengthen human rights? For whom?

  • Which groups are strengthened by this technology? Do they share any common features?

  • In what ways does this technology weaken human rights? For whom?

  • Which groups are weakened by this technology? Do they share any common features?

  • Does the effect of this technology differ for different groups of people, based on their class, gender, race, disability, age, or geographic location?

  • If this technology weakens human rights, how could its application be changed in order to promote human rights?

  • Does this technology create any human rights conflicts (e.g., one person’s right to privacy vs. another’s right to information)?

2. About scientific knowledge and discoveries generally:

  • Which article(s) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees members of society the right to benefit from scientific knowledge and discoveries?

  • Who has the responsibility to see that this right is enjoyed by all?

  • Who has the responsibility to see that this knowledge or discovery does not violate anyone’s rights?

  • In practice, do all people benefit from scientific progress? Cite examples to support your opinion.

3. Article 19 of the UDHR states "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

  • In what ways are these rights important to scientific research?

  • What are some reasons that governments might suppress free expression of scientists? In what ways would this suppression affect basic research and its applications?

  • What are some reasons that governments might prevent their citizens from having access to scientific information?

  • Are there any situations in which a government is justified in suppressing dissemination of scientific information or preventing scientists from speaking freely?

4. Article 27 of the UDHR states that "Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author."

  • What do you think "moral interests" means? In what ways can this right be denied scientists?

  • Do scientists have rights with respect to controlling the way their research and inventions are applied?

  • What are scientists’ responsibilities in this area?

5. What roles do science and technology play in guaranteeing the right to a fair and public hearing, set forth in Article 10 of the UDHR?

6. The right to a healthy environment is not explicitly mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although an international covenant on the environment is in the process of being drafted.

  • Can you think of a historical reason why the environment is not mentioned in the UDHR?

  • Which of the rights in the UDHR depend on a healthy and safe environment?

  • What are the responsibilities of individuals, government, business, and industry in ensuring a clean and safe environment?

  • Often poor and minority groups are affected the most by environmentally destructive practices. Why is this the case?

  • How do civil and political rights such as the right to vote, access to information, and freedom of expression contribute to environmental rights?

  • How do social, economic, and cultural rights such as the right to housing, adequate compensation, and one’s cultural identity contribute to environmental rights?

PART B: Suggestions for Activities

1. Research the stories of scientists such as Galileo or Andrei Sakharov who have been silenced or persecuted for their work or opinions.

2. Research the stories of environmental activists such as Chico Mendes in Brazil, Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria, Rachel Carson and Cesar Chavez in the United States.

3. Investigate environmental disasters such as the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union; the Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal, India; the contamination at Love Canal and the Hanford Nuclear Weapons Facility in the United States.

  • Identify the rights being violated and the groups of people most affected by the disaster.

  • How did individuals, government, business, and industry contribute to the disaster?

  • What responsibilities were not met by these groups, and what are their responsibilities in the aftermath of the disaster?

You can also adapt these questions to apply to development projects and environmental issues in your local community.

4. Find newspaper articles that describe new scientific discoveries, technological advancements, or development projects. Answer the following questions about the articles:

  • In what ways could this discovery or advancement promote human rights? Which specific rights in the UDHR?

  • In what ways might this discovery or advancement be used to deny human rights? Which specific rights?

  • Who is responsible for overseeing the application/distribution/use of this advancement?

  • Are any rights in conflict as a result of this discovery or advancement?

  • What are the environmental implications, if any, of this advancement?

  • Is this development likely to benefit all people in society, or will certain groups of people benefit more than others?

5. Research the role of forensic scientists in documenting human rights abuses such as disappearances and torture.

6. Investigate organizations that work to promote human rights as well as science, technology, and the environment (e.g., Physicians for Human Rights, the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Sierra Club’s campaign for human rights and the environment).

Source: Ethan Bleifuss, Earth Science Teacher, Apple Valley High School, Apple Valley, Minnesota; Karen Kraco, Human Rights Educators’ Network, Amnesty International USA.


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