published March 6, 2013

Science, Human Rights and National Security

Jessica M. Wyndham
Associate Director, Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

International human rights law recognizes that in limited circumstances "the interests of national security" may be legitimate grounds for restricting enjoyment of rights (see, for example, Article 8(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)). In practice, the responsibility of governments to "respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research" (Article 15(3)), for example, is frequently restricted for reasons of national security. Export controls, travel restrictions, limitations on foreign contacts and information sharing, and similar barriers to international cooperation and research limit the freedom of scientists to conduct their work, and particularly to collaborate internationally and with international partners, and the legal imposition and scope of such restrictions requires examination. From a human rights perspective, however, the science - human rights - national security nexus raises even more complex questions: one area of concern is non-lethal weapons research; and a second is the deployment of military technologies within a civilian context.

In 2010, Len Rubenstein wrote a cover story for the Professional Ethics Report concerning 'Human Rights and Non-Lethal Weapons Research,' examples including "chemical agents that can lead to unconsciousness or hallucinations, optical weapons such as lasers that are disorienting or blinding, acoustical weapons that can affect bodily functions and drugs that alter affective status." Rubenstein, a Senior Scholar at the Center for Human Rights and Public Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, argued that, "human rights principles can and should be brought to bear as scientists, their sponsors, and societies consider their engagement in [non-lethal weapons] research."

Rubenstein mentioned several human rights concerns arising from the development and use of non-lethal weapons, including: the non-discriminatory nature of the weapons, impacting not only military targets but also civilians; the use of such weapons to alter or undermine the personality, perception or consciousness of the individual; and the implications of this expanded field of research for openness, transparency and public accountability for national security-related research. Rubenstein argues that these human rights concerns should be taken into consideration when engaging in research oriented toward development of non-lethal weapons, though how to integrate such principles into any decision-making process remains a key question to be answered.


Related concerns arise with regard to dual-use research and technological developments. Concerns about dual-use research arise when the principal purpose of research is benign or legitimate but the broader potential applications are dangerous or destructive, for example when military technologies are applied in a civilian context. Recent examples include the use of long-range acoustical devices to disperse Occupy Movement protesters and police deployment of drones. Dual-use research and technologies raise questions about the responsibilities of scientists as well as the role of regulators to determine whether/how such research, how to monitor progress, and to be open and transparent about the risks posed by the information and products created. While human rights organizations are paying increasing attention to dual use research, an important question to be addressed is - how might human rights principles become part of the equation when regulating such research?