Cablegate: Unesco Ethics Programs, the Sky's the Limit

Lucia A Keegan 07/27/2006 09:42:34 AM From DB/Inbox: Lucia A Keegan






DE RUEHFR #5028/01 2061315
R 251315Z JUL 06





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: PARIS 03497

1. Summary and comment. The World Commission on the Ethics of
Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) held an "extraordinary"
session in Paris on June 27-28, 2006. This meeting was held to
brief members on current activities and to obtain recommendations on
next steps in three areas of "ethics" work in particular:
nanotechnology, the environment, and science. The Commission also
approved a recommendation concerning ethics in science and
considered policy documents on ethics in nanotechnology and the
environment, both of which will be considered at the next ordinary
session, in 2007.

2. Background: COMEST was created in 1998 to advise UNESCO on
ethical issues, exchange ideas, promote dialogue and detect early
signs of risk associated with science and technology. The Director
General (DG) chooses the 18 Members of COMEST, who serve as
independent experts and not as representatives of Member State.
Amcit Midge Decter is one of the members. In addition, the
presidents of various other scientific and UNESCO bodies are
ex-officio members; this includes the presidents of the
International Bioethics Committee (IBC), the Intergovernmental
Bioethics Committee (IGBC), the International Council of Scientific
Unions (ICSU), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission
(IOC), and the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs.

3. Henk ten Have, director of UNESCO's division of ethics of
science and technology in the sector of social and human sciences
(SHS), reviewed for the Commission the various activities relating
to ethics of science and technology underway within SHS.

He described work in the Global Ethics Observatory to create
databases of ethics experts, institutions dealing with ethics,
teaching programs, and related legislation guidelines and polices.
He described capacity building efforts to promote teaching.

According to Ten Have, the main activities in this area are said to
relate to consciousness raising. UNESCO and numerous other
organizations (e.g., the European Space Agency) are co-sponsoring a
conference October 26-27, calling attention to ethical issues
related to space. .

Ten Have said the idea originated with member countries that wanted
to develop a code of conduct to protect against bioterrorism. Those
countries (unnamed) felt that scientists don't know that their work
can be used for bad as well as good. The discussion focused on a
possible pledge, like the Hippocratic Oath, but then expanded to
include other issues-economic and political pressures on scientists.
The Executive Board in April 2004 directed that studies be
undertaken to determine the feasibility of drafting a declaration on
science ethics. There were two meetings in this direction (a
meeting of experts in Paris, March 2005, and a meeting of COMEST in
Bangkok later that month). The Executive Board in September 2005
renewed the directions for a feasibility study, but at the urging of
the U.S. the General Conference in October 2005 halted that in favor
of reflection by the DG on the topic (Resolution 39). This
reflection is now underway, assisted by consultations around the
world. The DG is to report to the Executive Board in October on his

4. In addition, SHS is analyzing various existing codes of conduct.
It is also examining the Recommendation on the Status of Scientific
Researchers adopted by the General Conference in 1974 to see if the
Recommendation is still valid, why has it not been invoked by Member
States and whether it should be bought to the States' attention

5. Prof. Sang-Yang Song of Korea summarized the consultations that
have been held to inform the DG's reflection. As he characterized
them, there were no objections to developing a universal code,
except at the consultation in Geneva, where the U.S. made a forceful
intervention. He quoted portions of the U.S. intervention, in
particular the opposition to the development of new normative
instruments. According to Song the U.S. view was a minority
opinion. It should be listened to, but since (he said) one cannot
make a clear distinction between normative instruments and
reflection, the majority view (that a code should be developed)
should be followed. (Comment: Song earlier showed a strong
anti-American streak in a paper he wrote for the consultations,
indirectly accusing the United States of using germ warfare during
the Korean War.)

6. Song's intervention also recalled that ten Have had told health
attach on May 19 (reftel) that the U.S. intervention in Geneva was
"strong" and impliedly unnecessary since the earlier consultation
(in India) had agreed that there was no need to develop a new
normative instrument or change the 1974 Recommendation and that they
would not be proposing to amend the 1974 Recommendation or to
develop a new normative instrument. (Comment: Prof. Song's summary
demonstrated the importance and value of the Geneva intervention;
without it, he apparently would have reported that there was
unanimous consensus to go forward with a new code.)

7. There was a discussion about what COMEST should do in light of
the General Conference Resolution 39 directing that the DG reflect
on the issue of ethics in science rather than doing a feasibility
study of a declaration. Midge Decter pointed out that the codes
of conduct are all quite basic ("anodyne") and that they are written
at the highest level of principle. One does not need a code of
conduct to be informed that fraud is bad. There was general
agreement that the issues are how a code is implemented and to whom
it is addressed (should it include funders as well as scientists).
The COMEST chairperson concluded the discussion by saying that
COMEST would redefine the 1974 Recommendation in light of different
circumstances (the rights of researchers in that document, she said,
is important in developing countries) and would "systematize" the
different existing codes of conduct by comparing them and
identifying common values. The president of the IBC, noted the
contradiction between saying that COMEST is considering revisions to
the 1974 Recommendation and that it was not considering normative
instruments (because the 1974 Recommendation is a normative
instrument and could be changed only by another one). She said she
was (correctly) "confused."

8. COMEST approved a recommendation to the DG that contains several
provisions that, read together, imply work leading to normative

Further consultations and reflections should be carried out "in
order to identify a general ethical framework to guide scientific
activity that will cover other stakeholders beyond the focus on

UNESCO should "work out such a general ethical framework";

The "subsequent elaboration and/or implementation of specific codes
of conduct...."

(Comment: This will be raised at the next Executive Board. The U.S.
should be prepared to clarify that this relates to existing codes,
and is not an invitation to support work by UNESCO on developing new
codes or revising the 1974 Recommendation.)


Ten Have reminded the group that the ethics of nanotechnology are
not now in the Work Program and asked if COMEST believed that UNESCO
should work on that topic, and if so, what should it do? As thus
phrased, of course, there was only one answer, and it was supplied
by the Chairman: COMEST can, and should, advise the DG to include
the bioethics of nanotechnology in its work program, but governments
decide. The question will come back for action at the COMEST
meeting (in Africa) in 2007.


Prof. Johan Hattingh of South Africa presented the work of the
expert group on environmental ethics. A book on the topic is
scheduled to come out by the end of the year. In addition, a draft
policy advice prepared by the Bureau was presented. If approved, it
would be adopted by COMEST at its 2007 meetings. The document is
not worth describing in detail, but we have included a few
interesting statements from it below:

Every form of life should be respected, regardless of its utility to
human beings.

Emphasizing the primacy of individual beings may threaten

Safeguarding the biosphere is probably more important than the
preservation of any single individual, species, or ecosystem.

Every human (present or future) has a right to an environment that
is conducive to his health and well-being, and also a responsibility
towards environmental protection.

The consequences of environmental degradation are often borne
disproportionately by disadvantaged groups.

The precautionary principle seems to be susceptible of consensus but
needs better understanding.

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is
scientifically plausible but uncertain, action shall be taken to
avoid or diminish that harm.

UNESCO could promote the consideration of Earth as a whole,
including renewable and non-renewable resources as global commons.

Ethical concern for the environment is a shared responsibility and
should not be delegated to any organization or group alone.

In ethical terms, the burden of proof should lie with those who
commit action that endangers living beings or the environment.

A fair and pragmatic approach to the emission of greenhouse gases
would be to move gradually towards quotas that would not be indexed
to GDP (Kyoto protocol) but rather would be based on population.

War is a major threat to the environment.
The international community may be willing to proclaim the necessity
to move towards mandatory ethical education for scientists.

Proposal to create a World Committee of Environmental Ethics (WCEE)
and National Committees of Environmental Ethics (NCEE).

UNESCO could explore ways to develop alternative paradigms of
thought and action to determine if they can replace dominant
paradigms of thought and practice

11. A few of the COMEST members thought the document was good.
Most were dismayed by it, for a variety of different reasons. Prof.
da Silva, who works to save the Amazonian rain forest, was opposed
to it on many grounds: it pitted science against the culture of
ethics; was "religious" in protecting all forms of life, instead of
considering the practical benefits of diversity. In other words, we
have an "interest" in biodiversity, not "respect" for it. Others
pointed out that the document makes a statement of position when
COMEST should be deciding only whether to advise DG that UNESCO
should do work in the area. The upshot was that COMEST members
would be given a chance to comment on the document, and it will be
considered again at the 2007 meeting (there was discussion as to
whether that would provide enough time, depending on the uncertain
timing of the 2007 meeting, for the DG to put a proposal before the
next General Conference).


This prize, sponsored by Iran, goes to a scientist for work in the
field of ethics. It is a cash award, plus a week in Iran
(teaching). The DG will soon be sending a letter requesting


Finally, there was discussion of other areas that might be of
interest to COMEST: biometrics, robotics, neuroscience,
communications (tracking people), privacy vs. security. The Bureau
will consider topics for future COMEST attention.


There was much discussion during the session of the fact that with
respect to bioethics there is a governmental body (IGBC) to help
steer the experts (IBC) but that for other ethical issues, there is
no Member State organization between the COMEST and the DG to give
COMEST political input. (Comment: In fact the IBC ignored the
recommendations of the IGBC in preparing its draft of the universal
declaration on bioethics for submission to the member states.)

15. Comment. The internal dynamics of COMEST (and indeed of any
group similarly constituted) mean that it will pose a constant
problem of meddlesome activism. Being named an "expert" to advise
the Director-General of UNESCO on important issues of science and
ethics is clearly a heady broth. The members felt an
obligation/opportunity to play a role. The aggregated effect of
these individual motivations is reinforced by an institutional
reality: once having been created, COMEST must carry out the mission
it is given (which in its case is very broad). Finally, the
discussion at the meeting and the activities being undertaken by the
Secretariat demonstrated how Member States' efforts to influence

UNESCO actions are like pillow punching. Their efforts to control
activities result in activities that are beyond their control (and
often even beyond their knowledge). The COMEST members recognized
that because of the General Conference Resolution 39 normative
instruments are not (currently) in their armamentarium. However,
expert groups, appointed by the Secretariat, and the Secretariat
themselves, are preparing policy documents to bring to the Member
States (which then requires great effort to modify or reject them)
and producing publications without any Member State review. At one
point, one COMEST member noted that this was an important way of
exercising their independence. Thus pressure for normative
instruments can be built through "experts'" pronouncements,
publications, policy documents, and the like. Even if Member States
do not adopt a normative instrument, these various sources can be
referred to as de facto standards.


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