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The Need for a Nuremberg Code for the 21st Century



In 2018 a paper describing the complete synthesis of the horsepox virus was published in PLOS, prompting debate and outcry about dual-use research from the scientific and global health communities. That same year, Faten Rajab Fawaz, a nuclear scientist, was executed by injection with an unknown substance causing her to bleed from every orifice until she died in a Syrian prison.

Her murder was met with significant response from the international human rights community but no response from the global health or scientific communities. It’s time for these communities to talk about the weaponization of science and its use in egregious human rights violations around the world.

The Nuremberg Code, which stemmed from the horrors of unethical scientific practices in Nazi Germany, was created to set new standards for human experimentation and set new standards for human research and support our global commitment to “Never Again.”

Still the weaponization of science continues. An emerging challenge facing the scientific and global health  communities stems from the fact that the Nuremberg Code which specifically creates a code of conduct for scientists as it relates to human experimentation, is no longer sufficient in the face of increasing government impunity and fails to create an enforceable response against the weaponization of science

Physicians and scientists are continuously being hired to weaponize their disciplines. We have seen this from the cases of illegal drug testing on prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, the information we’ve collected on torture practices in Syrian prisons, and the hiring of scientists to produce sarin gas in Iraq, to name just a few. These instances illustrate the risk the weaponization of science and medicine can pose to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people. While these examples are only a few in recent memory, the weaponization of scientists and health personnel has a long history.

Despite the increased incidence, the global health and scientific communities have yet to create any formal mechanisms for accountability –or have even started to track this trend. Although organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights have been the leaders in calling out these crimes, they couch their discussions in human rights and international law. However, working with scientists in case building to translate scientific data into law can add tremendous power to the important work of international law practitioners.

Science can be used effectively in building cases against perpetrators of gross crimes. An excellent example of this was when the NGO Syrian Archive and magazine Knack revealed that Belgium had violated EU sanctions against Syria. They were able to do this using the results of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) investigation of the Khan Sheikhoun impact crater which found that isopropanol was used as a chemical precursor to make Sarin, an illegal chemical weapon used in the attack on the city. Similar stories indicate that there is a lot scientists can contribute in this arena.

More so, without international law that expressly names weaponization of science and medicine broadening the understanding and scope of violations of crimes against humanity and other war crimes along  with the limited jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to countries that have ratified the Rome Statute combined with the overall limited options to enforce accountability for mass atrocities, the legal community is limited in its capacity to take to take meaningful action against the use of science to violate human rights and international norms.

As such, the science and global health communities must take on a larger role in building infrastructure and mechanisms necessary to collect important data and build effective policy to counter the use of science as a weapon.

Beyond taking a more active role in cases of international law, the scientific community should also seize upon the opportunity to push for policies and programs that could address these issues in real time such as the expansion of the Biosecurity Engagement Program, a program executed by the United States Department of State with a mission, “to work with governments, scientists, and other stakeholders to build sustainable capacity for biosecurity, biosafety, disease surveillance, and cooperative scientific research” as well as the creation of a coalition of scientists from a variety of disciplines, human rights lawyers, economists journalists and policymakers to educate, track and inform institutions on implementation of best practice, track abuses of science, and inform policy to address these crimes in real-time.

The global health and scientific communities are uniquely equipped to do this because of their ability to inform policy through the translation of basic science to the public health level and from the public health level. This is just as critical as building human rights cases because it bypasses expensive and slow mechanisms of accountability and substitutes them with fast-acting, evidence-based policies and real-time incidence tracking because it takes less time to create and enforce a policy than build and prosecute a case in court.

In the long term, this will facilitate increased utilization of science and promote science communication, thereby offering opportunities for improved public health communication, stewardship, and general scientific understanding among the general population—an important goal of global health and science communication.

Within the last four years alone, we’veseen the Syrian regime use sarin gas on civilians in the Khan Shaykhun attack, the dissolution of a journalist’s body in acid, and rampant violation of the injuction to “do no harm” among government physicians. Unfortunately, the use of science to wage war has become the norm, increasing at a rapid rate with no end in sight. As diplomacy continues to fail, wars continue to start, and the international institutions we have continue to flounder; scientists will continue to be utilized to wage war.

With the way geopolitics continues to limit our traditional mechanisms of justice and accountability, science seems to be one of our only – and best – ammunitions against the weaponization of science and scientists. Science is the best way to protect scientists like Faten from the weaponization of science. The science and health communities must play a central role in leading the creation of a new Nuremberg code.



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