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Part 1 - Scope and objectives

The problems, the project, and the prognosis


The impact of science and technology on society has long been acknowledged. That impact can be beneficial or detrimental. The detrimental aspects have attracted considerable comment and analysis, especially in recent years, and these studies have led naturally to a consideration of the adverse impact of science and technology on human rights.

There has been much concentration, in the recent literature, on the ways in which both specific human rights and general human rights principles are being undermined by advances in science and technology. Such concentrated studies of these adverse impacts ought not, however, to distract us from examining the other side of the coin.

On 10 March 1986 the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted Resolution 1986/9, entitled "Use of Scientific and Technological Developments for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms," inviting "The United Nations University, in co-operation with other interested academic and research institutions, to study both the positive and the negative impacts of scientific and technological developments on human rights and fundamental freedoms." The hope was expressed that the United Nations University would inform the Commission on Human Rights of the results of its study of the question.

The United Nations University, in response to this invitation, decided to undertake a study, the object of which was to develop a conceptual framework which would enable the discernment of both the negative and the positive impacts of scientific and technological developments on human rights and fundamental freedoms. The study was to focus on the interaction between socio-cultural, economic, and political factors on the one hand and scientific and technological advances on the other, especially in the developing countries.

Such studies would in turn have two broad aspects. We would need analyses of the ways in which science and technology have advanced the cause of human rights, by bringing within the of the majority of humanity many human rights (e.g. in the spheres of health, communication, education) which could in the past be enjoyed only by a select few. Scientific and technological advance has also now made possible the wider enjoyment of these human rights. We need to research ways in which we can extend the reach of these benefits so that they serve much larger segments of the global population than they do at present.

Even more importantly we need studies of the ways in which further advances in science and technology can be harnessed in the service and furtherance of human rights. This is a matter of planning, based on the philosophy that science is humanity's servant and not its master and that the users of science can and should play a role in shaping its directions and using its products.

The attitude of concentration on the adverse impact on human rights of new scientific and technological advances has in it an element of acceptance of the inevitability of the directions of these advances. This attitude implicitly assumes that since these new advances must inevitably occur, we must warn against their dangers, but that we have no control over the directions they take. To the extent that such an assumption is implicit in prior attitudes, it needs to be corrected. We, the users of science and technology, must also contribute an input into the decision-making process which determines what directions they will take.

While it would be unrealistic to deny altogether that science and technology sometimes go forward with a momentum of their own, they are also amenable to direction and guidelines of service to the community, for science and technology are funded externally - in the last analysis by the community - and the community, as funders and supporters of technology, is entitled to a voice in the directions it takes. The need for heavy funding makes it no longer true that the individual scientist or technologist charts out his own course of action as a totally free determiner of the nature and ends of his research.

If this be true we have the opportunity to guide science and technology in the direction of greatest service to humanity. The furtherance of human rights is one such service. Indeed, if human rights represent the quintessence of human achievement in the direction of equality and freedom, there are few higher purposes that science and technology can serve. We have not given adequate thought to this area before, and through this study hope to provide an impetus for further research and more effective measures directed to this end.

Another area of tacit resignation to inevitability is in regard to the tendency of science and technology to serve the affluent sector of the global population. The poor countries are for the most part recipients of technology developed in the affluent world which, as a whole, generates its own technology. As the generator of that technology, the affluent world naturally produces what suits its own requirements or purposes rather than those of the poor world. Indeed, the totality of scientific talent devoted to serving the needs of the impoverished is but a minute fraction - perhaps less than 1 percent, according to the Brandt Report - of the totality of the scientific enterprise. In spite of the fact that the conditions and needs of the developing world arc often far removed from those of the developed world, technology geared to the latter is often the only technology available to the former, however unsuitable it may be.

Science and technology give power to those who wield them, whatever the field involved. Whether it is in the field of communications technology or of bio-medical advances, every new technology gives new power to its controllers. This constitutes a new source of power for the affluent world from which these technologies come and, in the nature of things, such power tends to be wielded in the interests of those who command it.

This tendency is inevitably present and offers the global population another wide area for rethinking old assumptions and attitudes. This study seeks to examine some of these processes by looking at the structure of the scientific enterprise and the points at which more significant inputs can be made by the users of technology. The developing world is the largest eventual consumer of science and technology. In studying ways of deriving the maximum benefit from science and technology, we ought particularly to consider the needs of the developing world and the impediments to technological development.

The problems are numerous. Attitudes have to be altered, priorities determined, new procedures and structures fashioned. Ethical codes for scientists need to be developed, attitudes of resignation and lack of participation in matters technological need to be corrected. Assumptions that Western technology is synonymous with progress need to be revised.

This volume is of course only a preliminary study. It does not aim at providing solutions but rather at setting the background for further studies and helping to identify areas requiring more scholarly effort. Its intention is not to chart out new extensions of human rights but, rather, to find ways and means of implementing existing human rights norms within the changing context of rapid scientific and technological progress. It aims at assisting in the evolution of scientific and technological policies which the developing countries should adopt so that science and technology can be developed in accordance with the needs and requirements of human and social development. It takes its place alongside the research projects launched by the United Nations University in the field of scientific and technological development, such as food and nutrition policy, energy planning, food and energy nexus, biotechnology, and microprocessors. Special United Nations University projects which are more closely related to the present study are those on Technology Transfer, Transformation and Development, Technical Research and Development Systems in Rural Settings, Sharing of Traditional Technology, Self-reliance in Science and Technology for National Development, and Technical Capacity and Prospectives for the Third World.

As this study proceeded it became clear that three categories of human rights related to scientific and technological development should be developed:

1. The right of protection against the possible harmful effects of scientific and technological developments.

2. The right of access to scientific and technological information that is essential to development and welfare (both on the individual and collective levels).

3. The right of choice, or the freedom to assess and choose the preferred path of scientific and technological development.

Of the three categories, protection covers the negative aspects, while access and choice relate to the positive aspects of scientific and technological developments.

It became clear also that science and technology cannot be treated only as products or processes, but should rather be treated as information generated, processed, transmitted and transformed in the process of creating products. This means that we must trace the genesis of such information, its generation, transformation, combination, transfer and application, analysing systematically both the conditions and consequences of interactions between human and social settings and technological information. This would have to be traced through many phases research and development, commercialization, and technology transfer, to mention only a few. The legal aspects of such processes are often quite remote from conventional concepts of human rights. Research would need to be undertaken to bring the applicable legal norms into closer conformity with developing human rights concepts and to bridge the wide gulf now existing between the two disciplines.

There will be a need for further studies following on from those in this volume. These would examine selected cases connected with conventional and new technologies in relation to human rights, namely: (a) conventional technology: (i) industrial; (ii) agricultural; and (b) new technology: (i) microinformatic; (ii) biotechnology (including big-medical); and (iii) new materials.

There would also be the need for case-studies related to some of the above technologies, with special reference to:

1. The socio-cultural, economic, political, and ethical aspects of the process of scientific and technological development and the conditions required to guar antee access and choice.

2. The interface between the process of scientific and technological development and human rights.

Policy recommendations would follow from these analyses of the process of scientific and technological development. The recommendations will need to make an impact in both social and scientific terms. They should also be such that they are accepted as relevant to human rights concerns and capable of being applied accordingly by the legal profession. To ensure this, the project will need to survey the perceptions and opinions of jurists, not only at the level of international experts, but at the level of human rights lawyers, especially in the developing countries.

Such an endeavour cannot of course be undertaken merely on the basis of futuristic studies in one or two disciplines. We need to bring together the wisdom and experience of many disciplines - not merely science, technology, and human rights. We need to survey the broad historical processes involved and the political, sociological, and economic factors at work. We need to harness the insights of philosophy and jurisprudence and to take account of current concerns regarding the environment, the survival of the ecosystem and of the species. Advances in the biological and genetic field raise issues regarding the integrity of the human body and the very nature of humanity.

The studies involved are vast and this volume is only a first step. It seeks to bring together a series of studies from many angles. After this preliminary chapter, we proceed in part 2 to deal with some major global issues which stress the importance of prospective studies, technological self-reliance, and conflicting values and pressures. Such macro-studies provide a setting against which the problems involved can better be analysed. Although some of these studies concentrate, in accordance with our mandate, on the problems of the third world, they contain reflections and conclusions which are of value to all sectors of the world's population.

The volume proceeds in part 3 to examine the international response to the problem in a theoretical as well as a practical sense, in two chapters - one dealing with the normative response and the other with the institutional response.

Part 4 looks at three selected specific issues. These are only samples chosen from a multiplicity of possibilities.

The studies appearing in this volume make it clear that the problem is not one which can be permitted to drift any longer. The progress and course of science and technology are not automatic and inexorable. At every level a number of decision-makers are involved- whether they be multinational corporations, large or small enterprises, politicians, bureaucrats, research foundations, universities, or consumer groups. At the level of choice - whether it is choice of research or choice of product the developing world must project itself in ever-increasing measure. To do so it needs a complex background of interdisciplinary information and a heightened awareness of the need to interpose its own will rather than let the forces governing science and technology have a free run in its territory.

Scientific and technological choice suitable for a developing country requires much more than a formal structure of local scientific institutions. It needs this kind of interdisciplinary background, and perhaps the present project can help to fill the gap in this area. The important process of technological determinism requires far more information than the scientific community alone can give, however dedicated and well-intentioned they may be.

Science and technology need to be bent in the direction of service; and an important field of general service to humanity is the area of human rights. Seeing that science and technology arc among the most potent forces at work today in shaping the way in which we live, it is perhaps opportune that on the fortieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration - the most important landmark in history of the universal acceptance of human rights concepts - we should give thought to the ways in which we can better understand and more thoughtfully direct the forces of science and technology towards the greater protection and fulfilment of the human rights of all citizens of our one world.

We are at one of the great watersheds in history, for whatever course technology may take, we are moving into an era that will be dominated by technology. Whether humanity will live in sunshine or in shadow may well depend on whether it rules or is ruled by technology. Just as technology can light up our future it can condemn us to live in the darkness of its ever-lengthening shadow. It is critical therefore that we make our choices now and that the vast bulk of the world's people realize that it is there to serve rather than be served.

Further delay in the process of analysis initiated in this work can only mean that technology tailored essentially for the developed world will continue to Row and harden in pre-set grooves fashioned for it by the developed world. Every new development presents a new range of choices for further development, but the choice of new development is still dictated by the needs of the developed world. The developing world needs a fuller realization of the range of choice and the extent of scope for independent action available to it. This realization is urgent because technology feeds on itself, and unsuitable technology once introduced tends to be perpetuated. Extensions or variations tend then to be made on the assumption that the prototype provides a fixed and unalterable framework to which the changes must conform. The process once started is difficult to arrest, and can lead to wide divergences between the nature of the technology and the needs of the community.

This study will reveal numerous possibilities for study and action. Only some of them can be chosen, but we hope that the research described will facilitate the difficult process of choice.

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