Press releases Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
A Joint Appeal for Open Science by CERN, OHCHR, UNESCO and WHO
27 October 2020
Statement by Michelle Bachelet,
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
27 October 2020
My dear colleagues,
Our joint call today is principled, lifesaving and urgent.
Worldwide people need States, international bodies, science and medical institutions and practitioners to ensure the broadest possible sharing of scientific knowledge, and the broadest possible access to the benefits of scientific knowledge. This is key to any effective public health policy. It is essential to the combat against climate change. And it is a fundamental matter of human rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly proclaims the right "to share scientific advances and its benefits".
COVID-19 has brought this issue of open information into sharp focus. The suppression or denial of scientific evidence in some circles – and reluctance to adopt evidence-based policies – have magnified the devastating harms the pandemic is generating. A basic principle of public health is the need for full and honest engagement with the public. Use of force will not mitigate or end this pandemic – but the use of science, and fully informed public consent and compliance, will. Last week, our sister agency WHO teamed up with Wikipedia to provide free and timely access to information about COVID-19: I applaud this innovative development.
The pandemic also gives new importance to the need to ensure non-discriminatory access to the benefits of science – such as any COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Under international human rights law, States have a clear obligation to ensure international cooperation and access to a vaccine. Everyone, including vulnerable or marginalised individuals and groups, is entitled to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress – and when the benefits of science are managed as a purely commercial product reserved for the wealthy, everyone is harmed.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has devoted considerable attention to this issue in recent months, notably in its General Comment 25 on "Science and economic, social and cultural rights" ,which counsels that intellectual property regimes should be implemented in a manner supportive of States' duty "to protect public health, and in particular, to promote access to medicines for all".
The benefits of scientific and medical progress were always meant to be shared. The great beauty of science is that it has no borders – and that, working together, every scientist and student of science can contribute to the shared knowledge and benefit of all. As part of our work to better address and recover from COVID-19, we need to honour this essential spirit of scientific endeavour – with much wider data and information exchange, technology transfer and overall expansion of the availability of medicines and health technologies.
Open Science is not only about fostering enhanced sharing of scientific knowledge and outcomes. We also need to promote the inclusion of scholarship by people whose contributions and needs are too often overlooked.
Those participating fully in the global scientific effort should also take into account the needs and experiences of women, members of minority communities, Indigenous scholars, persons with disabilities, people living in poverty and people from less developed countries – among others. Only then will research fully address all communities – and contribute to reducing the unequal access to scientific developments and capabilities across different countries and regions.
Everyone's right "to share in scientific advancement and its benefits" has been attacked in recent years, particularly in the context of discussion of climate change.
In some circles, the issue of whether climate change even exists, or is caused by human activity, is treated as a matter of personal belief rather than rigorous science. As a group of 58 experts wrote in 2018 "a false equivalence" is created "between an overwhelming scientific consensus and a lobby, heavily funded by vested interests." This deliberate introduction of doubt about clear and factual evidence is catastrophic for our planet. Our Joint Call today emphasises that "public policies should rely on verified information, facts and scientific knowledge," because as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said, "We must listen to the earth's best scientists". This is a matter of saving individual lives; the future of communities and nations; and our planet.
Finally, a brief word about a big subject: data. Sound statistical data are closely related to scientific progress, and they are a vital human rights tool. As I never tire of saying, we will never be able to fix what we cannot see. Our Office leads UN-wide work on data collection that is carefully disaggregated and integrates human rights concerns. This is crucial to acknowledging and transforming long-standing discrimination and other human rights violations, which impede the full enjoyment of rights.
I am convinced that open science can help to unlock vital keys to recovery, and a better world. Thank you for your attention, and for standing up for human rights.