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Issue No: 199
July 23, 2005

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Ethics, science and human rights come together

Young man signing consent form to participate in clinical trial in Iran

Priya Shetty

UNESCO has issued a draft declaration it says will be the first ever to commit governments to take a position on the ethical and human rights dilemmas raised by modern research.

"Every culture, even those most critical of technological advances, must develop a response - be it supportive or controlling - to the emergence of new technologies [...] To do nothing is to make a decision," states an accompanying memorandum. The draft declaration, released on 24 June, is intended by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) to provide guidance on how to draft laws that regulate ethics and human rights in science.

It urges states to consider ethical questions from a 'human rights perspective': at its heart is the statement that the welfare of the individual should have priority over the interests of society or governments. It stresses, for instance, the importance of obtaining prior informed consent from participants in scientific research, and that community or third-party consent should never be a substitute for the consent of the participating individual.

With regards to preserving biodiversity and indigenous knowledge, especially in developing countries, it emphasises the importance of people being able to access their local genetic resources and traditional knowledge systems.

Carolyn Stephens, a lecturer in ethics, human rights and public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health, told SciDev.Net that the declaration "is especially important in these times when many marginalised peoples all over the world have no support and think the world is simply exploiting them for medical science".

The declaration encourages governments to set up ethics committees to assess scientific developments, help keep the public informed and encourage public discussion of bioethics issues. Although guidelines on ethical and human rights issues exist, this is the first time the two subjects have been combined in a single document aimed at governments, says the director of UNESCO's division of ethics of science and technology, Henk ten Have.As an example, he points out that the Helsinki Declaration on research ethics is adopted only by the World Medical Association, a professional organisation.

Common international standards would benefit developing countries in particular, ten Have told SciDev.Net, as they tend to have weak ethics regulation systems. The draft declaration will be submitted for approval by all 192 UNESCO member states in October. Ten Have does not expect the final text to differ significantly.

Source: SciDev.Net

Argentine high court voids 'Dirty War' amnesties

The high court declared the laws unconstitutional in a 7-1 vote with one abstention, scrapping the amnesties that ended trials for atrocities against leftists carried out under Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship.

A government report says 11,000 people either died or disappeared during a systematic crackdown by the military to snuff out dissent during the dictatorship. Human rights groups say the number is closer to 30,000.

The ruling marked a victory for human rights groups hoping for a renewed examination of the military's seven-year rule and highlighted a new political will under President Nestor Kirchner - who was held briefly by the military when he was a student - for investigating Dirty War-era abuses.

Dozens of human rights activists, including some gray-haired mothers who have led a decades-long search for many of "the disappeared" victims, cheered the decision outside the main Buenos Aires courthouse after it was announced.

"This is truly historic," said Tati Almeyda, a founding member of the human rights group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which has led weekly marches to remember the missing. "I am absolutely overcome with emotion."

Other family members of the disappeared hugged each other and held aloft tattered black-and-white photos of their missing relatives. The decision came in the case of Julio Simon, a former police officer charged in connection with the disappearance of two Argentines and the adoption of their daughter.

Under Argentine law, the ruling was expected to serve as a precedent for other cases in the lower courts. Lawyers for human rights groups said the decision could also lead to new charges being brought against 300 to 400 military officers - many of them now retired - for military excesses.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch Americas, said he hoped the ruling could give impetus to other South American countries like Uruguay, Chile and Colombia, where amnesty laws now exist or are under debate.

"The Supreme Court's ruling shows that no matter how may years go by, laws that block justice for gross human rights abuses remain a thorn in the side of democratic governments," he said in a statement. After Argentina's return to democracy in 1983, many ranking military officers were tried on charges of rights violations against suspected leftist opponents and ordered imprisoned two years later. But after a series of military uprisings, former President Raul Alfonsin sought a pair of amnesties from Congress known as the "Full Stop" and "Due Obedience" laws in a bid to temper anger in the barracks.

The laws brought an end to the investigations of the military junta's top officials and protected lower-ranking officers from prosecution on the grounds they were legally forced to carry out orders from their superiors.

In 1990, then-President Carlos Menem issued a pardon for all military officials in an attempt at what he called "national reconciliation." Many of the junta's top leaders, including former Gen. Jorge Videla and Adm. Emilio Massera, are under house arrest on charges of kidnapping babies born to mothers held in captivity during military rule.

Source: Buenos Aires, Argentina (Reuters)



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