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International Human Rights Day
December 10, 2003
In Commemoration

By Torsten Wiesel, Chair (since 1993)
Committee on Human Rights, NAS, NAE, IOM

Today, as the world celebrates the 55th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), I wish to thank the members of the National Academies, on behalf of the CHR and its staff, for their vital support, over the past 27 years, of the committee and of its work to promote the tenets of this pivotal document. The UDHR is the anchor of our work and, given the international character of science and its pursuit of truth, it holds particular significance for us as scientists, engineers, and health professionals. The right to freedom of opinion and expression (Article 19), is essential to scientific progress; it is the exercise of this right that most often lands our more vulnerable colleagues around the globe in prison.

The belief that I expressed on December 10, 1981, at the Nobel banquet in Stockholm, still holds true: Freedom of the mind has been threatened through history and today is no exception. I added then that I could not think of a greater symbol of human resistance and courage than our Nobel laureate colleague Andrei Sakharov.

Today, we continue to witness courage in the face of oppression. I can think of many colleagues whose cases have been undertaken by the CHR but it is Nguyen Dan Que, an imprisoned Vietnamese medical doctor, a man of courage and principle, whose current situation brings him most prominently to mind. After struggling against government policies for over 30 years - and having spent more than 18 of those years in prison because he expressed his views - he was arrested again in March 2003 and has not been seen since by family, friends or legal council. Sadly, there are also thousands of other brave man and women around the world who are incarcerated solely for expressing their opinions and who need support from people in all walks of life.

We scientists must commit ourselves to redoubling our efforts to: gain the release of unjustly imprisoned colleagues around the world; to increase our vigilance here at home so that efforts undertaken to safeguard national security do not undermine the very freedoms and liberties - for U.S. and non-U.S. citizens alike - that are so vital to a free society; and to encourage respect and adherence to international human rights law.

In closing, I would also like to acknowledge with gratitude those national academies around the world that are actively involved in helping their repressed colleagues by participating in the work of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies. The world scientific community has achieved some important victories in the human rights arena and without its efforts abuses would clearly be worse. But, to achieve steady global human rights progress, we must all contribute. The world scientific community is particularly well suited not only to promote the UDHR but to intervene in situations to ensure that it is respected and effectively implemented.

For additional information regarding the Committee on Human Rights, please visit our website.