Human Rights: Unilateral sanctions threaten scientific research and academic freedom: UN experts

Geneva, 7 July, 2022.- UN human rights experts* today raised concerns over expanding the application of unilateral sanctions into areas of scientific and academic research and publishing, after reports that academic research submitted by authors from sanctioned countries were being disqualified.

Recalling the principle of non-discrimination and due diligence set out in the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights, the experts called on publishing houses and scientific journals boards to refrain from over-complying with existing sanction regimes out of fear of potential reputational, business or other implications

“We are gravely concerned at the growing negative impact of existing sanctions regimes on academic and scientific research, as well as on initiatives of international academic cooperation, adversely affecting the participation of scholars and academics from sanctioned countries,” the experts said.

They noted with concern the shrinking space for engagement and collaboration with international scientific journals and academic societies available to scholars and academics from sanctioned countries. “This is compounded by existing sanction-induced financial and other restrictions to international academic and scientific cooperation,” the experts said.

The experts said they had received information with regard to sanction-induced impediments to academic freedom and the right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications. These impediments included imposed restrictions in the review and publication procedures of research conducted and submitted to international journals by authors and scholars from sanctioned countries.

“We observe with concern the existence of “sanction clauses” contained in certain publishing companies’ research and publishing ethics policies and guidance. These clauses encourage scientific journal editors to treat submissions from sanctioned countries with ‘caution’. The practice presumes the legitimacy of unilateral coercive measures that does not correspond to numerous relevant resolutions of the Human Rights Council, the experts said.

“Such practices are incompatible with international human rights norms and standards, including the fundamental principle of non-discrimination, the rights to freedom of thought, freedom of expression, as well as the right to education and the right of everyone to enjoy scientific progress, including through opportunities to contribute to science and scientific research,” the experts said.

The experts made specific reference to the 2016 Guidance on Certain Publishing Activities issued by the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the vague and complex interpretation of criteria for “authorised” publishing activities. This has led certain publishing houses, editors and reviewers to over-comply and summarily reject submissions from sanctioned countries, even without preliminary review for fear of repercussions, including personal liability.

“Scientific and academic research and the dissemination of its findings should not be conditioned by decisions other than those based entirely on scientific and academic considerations. They should not be contingent upon political decisions and enforcement of sanction regimes against countries and their nationals,” the UN experts said.

“We urge academic associations, publishing companies and editorial boards to take all necessary measures to eliminate over-compliance with existing sanctions regimes,” they said.

The experts observed that academic cooperation and exchange is an inalienable part of the process of getting new knowledge on behalf of the World community and to fully exercise human rights standards, including in the sphere of access to information and freedom of expression. “We urge the US Government to withdraw unilateral sanctions, which discriminates against professionals and scholars from countries under sanctions,” they said.

The experts have communicated their concerns to the US Government and to several publishing companies, to seek clarifications on this matter, and are yet to receive a response.

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