COVID-19 recovery: A possible turning point for operationally linking science and human rights

logo global campus

COVID-19 recovery: A possible turning point for operationally linking science and human rights

Science and human rights are intrinsically connected yet this link has not been fully integrated into COVID-19 responses. Translating normative consensus into practice will require targeted advocacy, appropriate operational guidance and strengthened UN coordination, notably in implementing science-related SDGs.

The link between science and human rights and recent developments at normative level
The interconnection of sustainable development, science and human rights does not require substantiation. From the foundation of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1945, the UNESCO Constitution championed pursuit of objective truth and exchange of ideas and knowledge. The organization saw these as critical to advancement of scientific co-operation in order to tap into the enormous potential of science for peace and human welfare. More recently, Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development set an unequivocally holistic approach. All efforts to meet its 17 SDGs and corresponding targets, including the 23 explicitly relating to science, technology and innovation, should be rooted in human rights and driven by commitment to ‘leave no one behind’.

However, this articulation has not yet been translated into concrete and systematic action as regards science. For example, consider the limited reference to human rights in discussions about the role of science and technology in the implementation of science-related SDGs. Beyond some general mention, human rights did not constitute an issue of substantive exchange around the attainment of SDGs 9 and 17 at the 2018 Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nonetheless, COVID-19 could constitute a turning point for three interrelated reasons. First, the last few years have seen increasing consensus on the need to connect the science process with human rights principles and standards – this idea underpins UNESCO’s 2017 Recommendation on science and scientific researchers. Second, that effort could benefit significantly from the recent growth in normative clarity on science and economic, social and cultural rights, owing to the adoption ofGeneral Comment No. 25 by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). Finally, there is broad agreement that COVID-19 response and recovery, which require the mobilisation of all science fields, should be founded on human rights.

The adoption of UNESCO’s Recommendation on science and scientific researchers was a major milestone in articulating the science and human rights relationship. The Recommendation represented, in the words of UNESCO’s Director-General, ‘a conceptual paradigm shift’. A crucial innovation was the distinct anchoring in human rights of its vision of science – which is holistic in that it covers the whole science process and inclusive since it applies to all science fields. At its core lies the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits (article 27(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This entails that elements such as scientific freedom, international cooperation and protection from abuses derived from scientific advancement become central to the science process.

The CESCR’s adoption of General Comment No. 25 on science and economic, social and cultural rights in April 2020 was another groundbreaking development. Ten years after the Venice Statement first attempted to clarify the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications (article 15(1)(b) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), it crystallised in the context of the Covenant a set of founding principles and key state obligations to operationalise consensus that access to the benefits of scientific advancements and the knowledge that reinforces them are an entitlement closely connected to human dignity. By dissolving any normative ambiguity, the CESCR removed a critical obstacle to the right’s greater uptake by policies and actions.

Although these developments were not part of an explicit plan, their convergence cannot be considered a coincidence. At minimum, they are tangible proof of a change of mindset and the rising priority of a human rights-based approach to science, most importantly, at the level of UN member states.

The missing link in generally rights-based COVID-19 guidance
Against the pandemic’s grave impact on the realisation of all human rights and its exacerbation of pre-existing inequalities, the UN system stressed early on the need to build the response on a human rights foundation. UN Secretary-General Guterres’ strong message in the Brief on COVID-19 and Human Rights was complemented by robust rights-based guidance like that contained in the UN framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19 and the related HRBA checklist.
Yet, despite timely adoption of the General Comment and the CESCR statement on COVID-19, an important weakness remains. Apart from the Inter-American Guidelines for Protecting the Human Rights of Persons with COVID-19, none of the new guidance materials and documents mention the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits (article 27(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as the cornerstone of a rights-based approach to science even though many of them highlight the critical role of science in countering the effects of the pandemic.

The joint statement by UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) and World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) preceded the CESCR documents and therefore could not benefit from them. Nevertheless, it addressed a broad range of vital ethical issues drawing on the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. It put emphasis inter alia on the need to tackle inequalities, protect the right to health and balance privacy and autonomy against safety and security, and for interdisciplinarity, sound scientific knowledge and practices and common understanding of ethical review processes. Likewise, the UN General Assembly resolution of September 2020 entitled ‘Comprehensive and coordinated response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic’ emphasised the importance of furthering scientific research, the sharing of scientific knowledge and scientific international cooperation. However, while these two documents have undeniable strength, both omitted a clear call to apply the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits as the foundation for mainstreaming human rights systematically in the entire scientific process as it relates to the multiple domains affected by COVID-19, thereby missing the chance to establish definitive articulation between science and human rights.

Possible pathways for turning normative consensus into practice
As the world experiences the much-dreaded second wave of the pandemic and lockdown measures are back on the agenda, it becomes even more crucial to tap into the transformative power of science through a stronger articulation with human rights and particularly the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. This will require prioritising action on four fronts.

First, COVID-19 recovery plans must be integrated with advocacy and awareness-raising for a holistic approach to science, entrenched in human rights. Decision-makers at all levels, members of science academies and scientific researchers, civil society organisations, human rights defenders and other concerned actors, such as the media, must be sensitised to the benefits of applying a human rights lens to science for more equitable and sustainable societies. An example of such action was the Joint Appeal for Open Science issued on 27 October 2020 by the UNESCO and World Health Organization (WHO) Directors-General and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It premised advocacy for open, inclusive and collaborative science and a possible future standard-setting instrument in this field, explicitly on the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.

The second pathway is the strengthening of operational guidance. Current knowledge of how best to address implementation challenges remains incomplete. A major reason for that is the neglect of the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits in the examination of periodic country reports by the UN Human Rights Council and the CESCR. With the pandemic making this gap even starker, collection, analysis and dissemination of information about successful state practices is not only fundamental but urgent. This should pertain to a wide range of issues, including open science and citizen scientists, data and knowledge sharing and adaptation of intellectual property regimes. In addition to deliberate efforts to assemble such information, better use should be made not only of UN human rights monitoring mechanisms but also of other relevant processes such as the monitoring of the 2017 UNESCO Recommendation which started this year.

The third action area is the prioritisation of the science-human rights articulation in the monitoring of Agenda 2030. This responds to the 2019 SDG Summit broader commitment to a human rights-based approach and to leaving no one behind. It also acknowledges the Summit’s emphasis on the role of science, technology and innovation in accelerating progress toward the 17 SDGs. Moreover, it echoes several of the priorities of the UN Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights; namely, the need to step up the human rights anchoring of UN responses in times of crisis, in SDGs’ implementation and in exploring new frontiers in relation to scientific and technological advancements. An early opportunity to send a strong message in that direction is the upcoming High-Level Political Forum, the core UN platform for follow-up and review of the Agenda 2030 convened under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In addition to in-depth discussions on specific SDGs, the 2021 edition will be dedicated to sustainable and resilient recovery from COVID-19.

Last but not least, there is a need for strengthening coordination and coherence across the UN system and also with all concerned actors. This is both a standalone action and a constituent element of all previous interventions. Fostering a solid articulation between science and human rights is by definition a shared responsibility, considering the complementarities and overlapping mandates of distinct UN agencies but also the magnitude of the task. For similar reasons, it is crucial that the UN creates principled alliances with the multitude of actors who could help amplify the outreach and ultimately the impact of these efforts – notably the scientific world and the private sector. If science is to play its rightful role in helping humanity face and overcome this unprecedented crisis, it is urgent to ‘walk the talk’ in terms of linking science with human rights.


The author is responsible for the choice and the presentation of the facts contained in the article and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.

Konstantinos Tararas

Written by Konstantinos Tararas

Konstantinos Tararas works as Programme Specialist for UNESCO’s Inclusion and Rights Section in Paris, contributing to a wide range of the Organization's human rights-related activities. Highlights include the promotion of a human rights-based approach in UNESCO programming, efforts towards the normative clarification of the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits, and development of practical guidance on the inclusion of migrants in cities.

Cite as: Tararas, Konstantinos. "COVID-19 recovery: A possible turning point for operationally linking science and human rights", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 14 December 2020,


Add a Comment


This site is not intended to convey legal advice. Responsibility for opinions expressed in submissions published on this website rests solely with the author(s). Publication does not constitute endorsement by the Global Campus of Human Rights.

 CC-BY-NC-ND. All content of this initiative is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

freccia sinistra

Go back to Blog

Original Page:

Go back