Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

October 11, 2006

Three pages of Nature on Science & Human Rights

Filed under: HIV,Justice,Libya — admin @ 9:56 pm

Dear all
Broadening out on the Libyan HIV case, given that the trial will not resume until 31 October, tomorrow’s issue of Nature takes a look at the Libyan case within the wider context of science and human rights. I’ve a two-page story in, and Nature itself also has an editorial on the topic — they should be on free access. I’m up to my neck in deadlines, but will also endeavour to so some digging on this case in the weeks to come.

Here are a few excerpts from the Editorial.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Socialist… Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me.” Martin Niemöller’s poem, criticizing the inaction of German intellectuals in the face of the rise of the Nazis, serves as a powerful analogy for why scientists should be concerned by abuses of academic freedom, wherever they occur.

Most readers of Nature take it for granted that they can travel to work each day, free to enquire, express opinions and criticize government policy, without fear of intimidation or reprisals — let alone imprisonment or torture. Sadly, these freedoms can only be dreamt of in many countries of the world, where academics must live with, and often suffer directly, human-rights abuses. Their plight is our business.

But beyond humanitarian grounds, in this interconnected world we are engaged in a battle of ideas, and the failure to defend any abuse of academic freedom undermines the very principles that guarantee the rights we currently enjoy. Oppressive regimes typically stifle enquiry, as critical minds will inevitably also scrutinize their leaders. Enquiry is further undermined in such environments by the award of senior academic posts to the politically loyal rather than the competent, and the selection of policies or actions that suit governments’ agendas, regardless of the scientific evidence.

That latter characteristic is central to the trial of six medical workers — five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor — currently facing the death penalty in Libya on charges of infecting hundreds of children with HIV (see page 612). The real evidence has been purged from the trial. So it is encouraging that several major scientific bodies have now weighed in to demand that the court hears the scientific facts.

Tripoli may seem far away, but knowledge and academic freedom are central planks in many other struggles across the world for more open, democratic societies. Academics and universities are often hotbeds of such reform movements, and every year hundreds of academics worldwide consequently face threats, or worse. It is important that we do not forget them.”

They have already come for the Libyan medics; it is time to “Speak up” — eg by signing up to the alerts from one of the networks:

AAAS Human Rights Program
Amnesty International
Physicians for Human Rights
International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies
US National Academy Committee on Human Rights
New York Academy of Sciences, human rights programmes
APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS)
ACS Committee on International Activities Subcommittee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights
Scholars at Risk

The news story also touches on the response of Islamic science organizations to the Libyan case; these issues are not straightforward, and I hope I have been fair in representing both sides here.


But despite a Palestinian being one of the accused, science bodies in the Arab world have been relatively silent on the case. “The case is not on the radar at all,” says Moneef Al-Zou’bi, director-general of the Islamic Academy of Sciences, based in Amman, Jordan. “It has not attracted as much attention in this part of the world compared to elsewhere.”

The academy, created by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which represents 57 Islamic countries, has not taken a position on the case. “People here have so many political and economic problems, including the conflicts in Iraq and Palestine, that the case has just not become a priority,” says Al-Zou’bi. Such difficulties mean that the academy’s human-rights focus is much more on promoting basic socio-economic rights, he adds, such as access to clean water.

Not everyone agrees with that position. “This is a difficult call,” says one official at an international human-rights body, who asked not to be named. “Of course it is totally legitimate to prioritize the most basic rights for the largest number of people. But there is definitely a pattern of organizations in this region virtually ignoring violations of civil and political rights in their own neighbourhoods. I would think that at the very least, scientific or medical organizations would come out in support of colleagues sentenced to death in such a blatant case of scape-goating and dismissal of science. And in the end, when this can happen to health workers, the right to health also comes under threat.”

The OIC’s Commission on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) hasn’t taken a position either. Chairman Atta-ur-Rahman, who is also Pakistan’s higher education minister, says that human-rights issues are beyond the commission’s remit. “COM-STECH’s charter is confined purely to matters concerning scientific and technological cooperation between member states”, and so does not extend to legal and judicial matters, he explains.

Imad Khatib, secretary-general of the Palestine Academy for Science and Technology in East Jerusalem, says his academy “cares deeply about the plight of the nurses and the doctor and that they have a fair trial”, although he says that most of its human-rights efforts are spent on the abuse of scientists’ rights within Palestine.

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