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Committee on Human Rights Advocates for Colleagues Facing Repression

One committee within the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine works on an issue that is typically outside of the scientific spotlight but which is vital to the practice of science, engineering, and medicine: human rights. The Committee on Human Rights, also referred to as CHR, aids those working in scientific and related fields who are suffering because of human rights violations. “Our key mission is advocacy on behalf of individual scientists, engineers, and health professionals who are subjected to severe repression – such as torture or arbitrary detention -- for exercising internationally recognized human rights,” says CHR Director Rebecca Everly.

The Committee is currently following about 60 cases around the world and taking action at points in the process where it is likely to be effective, says Everly. A large part of the Committee’s work involves reaching out to high-ranking officials abroad and in the United States who are in a position to provide assistance in individual cases. About 1,600 members of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and National Academy of Medicine have agreed to be correspondents. CHR provides these members with information on cases and invites them to take action. “Over the nearly 40 years that the Committee has been in existence, Academy members have provided a great deal of support to colleagues,” says Everly.

The Committee also uses a United Nations confidential human rights complaint procedure that allows them to have an indirect conversation with governments. “We’ve found that to be effective in some cases, because it forces the government to keep confronting the issue,” says Everly. “We’re always looking for pressure points.” Whenever possible the committee also maintains contact with colleagues’ family members, both to get updates about case developments and to offer moral support, ensuring that the families know that people are working on their loved one’s behalf.

Why do the Academies take on this kind of work? “There are a lot of human rights organizations out there, but we play a unique role as a non-governmental, non-political body of scientists, engineers, and health professionals supporting colleagues under threat,” says Everly. “It’s important to have really robust pressure coming from different parts of the world and from organizations that do different kinds of work. There is also an important connection between science and human rights, as the right to freedom of thought and expression, as well as many other fundamental rights, are themselves essential for scientific work.”

The work of the 13-member Committee is supported by Everly, who took up her post as director in January, research staff Tracy Baumgardt and Amy Bush, and Program Officer Patty Evers, who is deeply involved in the Committee’s casework and leads the UN complaint submission process. “I’m lucky to work with a wonderful team,” says Everly.