This article discusses benefits and challenges in engaging engineers in connecting engineering and human rights. Engineers have a vital role to play in giving visibility to human rights, particularly in matters relevant to their field or discipline. Academic instruction in ethics is increasingly viewed as integral to a rigorous educational program in science or engineering. The Science and Human Rights Coalition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is one network of professional societies that recognize a role for scientists and engineers in human rights. An important way in which engineers can protect and promote human rights is by ensuring that the products they develop benefit people in need. Engineers have human rights that need to be respected in order for the engineering enterprise to flourish and the benefits of engineering to be broadly enjoyed. Engineers have opportunities to contribute to human rights compliance when designing and implementing projects, and to contribute to the realization of the right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications.


Engineers are no strangers to the challenges of bringing effective processes and basic infrastructure to remote communities and marginalized populations. Engineers often operate beyond the borders of their own communities, cultures, and languages to bring change and assist in the development of sustainable and resilient societies around the globe. Most engineers understand the potential impact of their work on people and the environment, and most are familiar as well with the ethics and regulations relevant to their jobs.

Many engineers are less familiar, however, with another set of ideas of direct relevance to their profession: international standards for human rights. Human rights include what are traditionally known as civil liberties—the right to vote, freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial—but they extend farther, including the realm of technology and its benefits.

The language and principles of international human rights start with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by all 50 members of the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948. The Universal Declaration is a non-binding statement, but it led to the development and adoption in 1966 of two separate binding international treaties, called International Covenants, one on Civil and Political Rights and the other on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

The former addresses such rights as freedom of expression, the vote, and fair trial, while the latter is concerned with rights to the basics of a sustainable life, such as food, housing, employment, education, and an adequate standard of living. Of particular relevance to the engineering profession,

Article 15(1)(b) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights recognizes the right to benefit from “scientific progress and its applications.”

Over 160 countries are party to this treaty, including Australia, Germany, India, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The United States, however, is not. While the U.S. is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it has been the long-held position of the U.S. that economic, social, and cultural rights are merely aspirational and unenforceable in a court of law.

There exist several other international human rights treaties addressing either the rights of specific vulnerable populations (children, women, migrant workers, and persons with disabilities) or specific human rights issues (racial discrimination and torture). Common principles that emerge across these and all other human rights laws are the principles of equality, non-discrimination, transparency, and accountability.

Human rights law provides a framework by which to establish budgetary, research, and programmatic priorities; defend the rights of engineers to conduct their work and to collaborate with colleagues on an international basis; assess whether and how to proceed with a project or product that may have negative impacts; and develop processes and mechanisms for ensuring that the benefits of engineering are enjoyed by everyone on a non-discriminatory basis, not only among developing countries, but within the developed world as well.

Human rights are fundamental entitlements that are to be enjoyed by everyone without discrimination by virtue of being human. Human rights are recognized in law, including international and regional treaty law, according to which governments voluntarily assume obligations for which they can be held accountable. Human rights are also recognized in domestic law, including constitutions and statutes. Human rights law, as voluntarily adopted at the international and regional levels, imposes obligations on governments to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. As such, governments are expected to not violate human rights, to ensure third parties do not violate human rights, and to take positive steps to ensure the enjoyment of human rights.

The mechanisms available to ensure governments abide by their human rights legal obligations will depend significantly on the specific context, including the nature of the outcome sought (individual or community-based), the appropriate forum for discussion (legislative or judicial), and the prevailing political system (autocratic or democratic).

For example, when human rights obligations are enshrined in a domestic constitution, then recourse to national courts is one avenue for ensuring human rights are protected. In cases where domestic protection of human rights does not occur, it is possible in certain circumstances to appeal to the international community for recourse and protection.

160 Countries Recognize The Right to Benefit from “Scientific Progress and its Applications.”

Government-employed engineers are bound to respect all of the treaty commitments entered into by their government. Individuals, private companies, non-governmental organizations, professional societies, and others may not be directly and legally bound by international human rights treaties entered into by government and for governments, but at minimum it can be argued that it is part of the professional responsibility of engineers to respect and promote human rights.

Just as ethical standards guide the work of engineers, so too human rights can offer a useful framework by which to set priorities, design products and processes, assess potential risks, monitor progress, and evaluate impact. Indeed, in some scientific societies human rights language has been explicitly incorporated into the code of ethics of the discipline to clarify and strengthen relevant standards of conduct.

Human rights are different from “development.” Engineers working in developing countries or on infrastructure and other development projects might be familiar with standards of development practiced by the World Bank, regional development banks, and similar development agencies. These standards can be distinguished from the specific and unique legal foundations of human rights.

Development is primarily a path towards poverty reduction. The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals represent a distillation of the principal development challenges that the global community believes need to be addressed for extreme poverty to be alleviated. These challenges include eliminating hunger, child mortality, HIV/AIDs, and malaria, and promoting environmental sustainability and gender equality. The 193 member countries of the United Nations pledged to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, with achievement measured according to specified statistical targets. For example, in the area of maternal health, the Millennium Development Goals set a target of reducing by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio. Currently, in developing regions, maternal mortality has reduced by 34 percent, a significant improvement, but still far from the millennium goal set in 1990.

A development approach and a human rights approach differ in several ways, including the way in which statistics are gathered and analyzed, the conclusions that are reached, and the policies and programming that result.

A human rights-based approach to maternal health, for example, requires a disaggregation of health data to identify the precise populations that suffer maternal mortality at a rate higher than average, or higher than considered medically acceptable. Such disaggregation may reveal that particularly vulnerable and marginalized populations experience maternal mortality at a rate higher than other populations, for example, on the basis of race, geographic location, socio economic factors, or language.

A human rights-based approach would then require a determination as to why such vulnerable and marginalized populations experience maternal mortality at these rates. Programming efforts would then target these populations and the unique challenges, obstacles, and barriers to maternal health that they experience.

The importance of identifying and addressing the unique needs of vulnerable and marginalized populations is central to a human rights-based approach and is vital to remember as engineers continue to make significant contributions and bring about lasting impact in the developing world.

The relationship between engineering and human rights is one of significant complementarity with the occasional risk of conflict. This relationship can be characterized in the following five ways: (1) engineers have human rights; (2) engineers can give their voices to human rights; (3) the application of engineering knowledge and skills can benefit human rights; (4) some applications of engineering may have negative human rights impacts; and (5) the human right to “enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications” elevates both the engineering endeavor and the applications of engineering to the level of an internationally and legally recognized human right.

Engineers have a Vital Role to Play in giving Visibilit y to Human Rights.

Engineers have human rights: Engineers, like all human beings, have human rights. They also have rights particular to their status as engineers, including the right to associate in professional engineering societies, to enjoy the freedom necessary to conduct research, and the right to communicate engineering information and knowledge. In many societies, however, the rights of engineers, as well as their scientist colleagues, are curtailed. As members of an educated minority, scientists and engineers may adopt public roles and garner political attention that put them in conflict with ruling elites.

In Bahrain, in the past year alone, two engineers have been the subject of calls for action and assistance. In one case, a professor of telecommunications engineering was arrested, and allegedly mistreated while in custody, for participating in an “unauthorized” rally. In another case, a professor of mechanical engineering was arrested on his reentry into Bahrain. The professor was returning from London where he had given a presentation to the House of Lords on the human rights situation in Bahrain. Even in open democracies, the rights of engineers may be curtailed in the name of national security, particularly with respect to the ability to travel, to collaborate with overseas colleagues, and to import and export equipment and other tools of engineering.

Engineers for human rights: Engineers have a vital role to play in giving visibility to human rights, particularly in matters relevant to their field or discipline. An engineer, for example, will be able to speak with credibility about the low-cost and practical options for bringing water and sanitation to a community, or the alternatives that exist in major infrastructure projects that avoid mass displacement of peoples. The first step necessary for engineers to contribute in this way, whether at the local or international level, is education. For engineers to become a constituency for human rights they need a firm grounding in the meaning of human rights, the tools for their implementation, the barriers to their realization, and the mechanisms for their enforcement. Integrating human rights into engineering curricula, therefore, is paramount. To increase the effectiveness of these efforts, it is necessary to build networks and identify partners that can help strengthen the voice and impact of engineers. Networks of professional societies offer one vehicle for increasing the scale and impact of engineers’ engagement in human rights.

The Science and Human Rights Coalition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is one such network of professional societies that recognize a role for scientists and engineers in human rights. The American Society of Civil Engineers, currently the only engineering society that has joined the coalition, is working to get more engineers involved. ASME, meanwhile, hosted a webinar on issues involving engineering and human rights in June.

Engineering for human rights: Engineering and technology are central to many of the processes and products that make the realization of human rights possible, including access to basic medical devices, electricity, potable water, means of sustainable food production, and transportation. Indeed, engineers have a growing tradition of contributing in substantive and deliberate ways to livelihood, infrastructure, and other projects in developing countries and underserved communities. Since the 1980s, Engineers Without Borders has been a catalyst in both identifying areas of technical need and facilitating the involvement of engineers to address these needs. Engineering for Change represents a slightly different model of collaborations built around an online forum for communication, challenge identification, and problem solving. These two initiatives, while broadly consistent and complementary to a human rights-based approach, do not operate explicitly within a human rights framework. Engineers interested in contributing to human rights directly can do so through On-Call Scientists, a network of volunteer scientists and engineers committed to giving their time and skills to human rights organizations in need of technical expertise.

“How might this Project Protect and Promote Human Rights?”

Human rights and the conduct of engineering: In some instances the implementation of engineering projects and the development of products using engineering skills and knowledge can run the risk of violating human rights. Dual-use technologies provide a clear example of such potential risks. Long-range acoustical devices and drones, for example, were built for principally military applications. Their deployment in response to citizen unrest raises concerns. In response to such concerns, human rights practitioners will often appeal to the “precautionary principle,” which states that in the absence of scientific consensus, caution and the avoidance of further potentially damaging actions are required in case an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or the environment.

Human right to benefit from engineering: Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which establishes the right to benefit from scientific progress and its applications, also goes on to require governments to conserve, develop, and diffuse science; to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research; and to encourage international contacts and cooperation in science. This right is interpreted as applying to the science, engineering, and health professions and is little known within scientific and engineering communities and seldom referenced within the human rights community. An effort is now under way, however, to give meaning to this right, determine steps for its application, identify barriers to its realization, and develop indicators by which to measure compliance with the right.

There are many ways in which engineers can become involved in human rights but here I will focus on two: integrating human rights into research and teaching; and incorporating a human rights-based assessment into project design, development, and implementation.

¦ Teaching and Research

Academic instruction in ethics is increasingly viewed as integral to a rigorous educational program in science or engineering. One innovative example is the Responsibility and Integrity in Science and Engineering (RAISE) program at the University of Delaware. It is a highly interdisciplinary program that not only engages students in discussions about ethics, but requires the students to lead activities, such as peer discussion groups, outside of class that are related to research ethics.

Furthermore, curriculum-based development projects are also gaining some prominence. Just recently, Rice University’s Global Health Technologies Course was awarded the Inquiry-Based Instruction prize by Science magazine. Participating students are generally sophomores and represent a wide range of majors, including bioengineering. Through the course they are given the skills and knowledge to solve real-world problems.

What we now see emerging from these experiences is an increased awareness of the specific value that human rights can play in engineering education. Daniel Lynch is the MacLean Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College, where he teaches classes on climate change and engineering, and sustainability and natural resource management. Lynch advocates for “the attainment of human rights in technology,” specifically the right to the material baseline of life, the right to proper stewardship of natural resources, and the right to the proper use, cultivation, and application of technological knowledge.

While Lynch’s approach is one of adopting human rights principles as a tool for guiding the engineering profession as a whole, another approach is taken by Juan Lucena, an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines. Luce- na incorporates a human rights assessment in guidelines setting out when students, and engineers more broadly, should provide humanitarian assistance. One question he asks is: “How might this project protect and promote human rights?”

An important way in which engineers can protect and promote human rights is by ensuring that the products they develop benefit people in need. One way this can be achieved is in the choice of products to be developed, and another is at the time of negotiating license terms. At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, “socially responsible licensing” is a process that has been adopted in several instances to improve the likelihood that technological and other developments reach beneficiaries who are often sidelined by high costs.

Examples of products that have been subject to humanitarian licensing provisions include a household water purification system, a vaccine for tuberculosis, biofortified sorghum, and a diagnostic tool for dengue fever. Several options exist for securing humanitarian licensing terms, and require consideration of such questions as: Who will receive a license; whether the license will be exclusive; what types of applications will be covered; and how long the duration of the license will be.

¦ Design, Development, Implementation

Engineers are present and working in all sectors of society, from government to the private sector, from nonprofit organizations to academia. Human rights law binds governments, establishing their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. At the same time, nongovernment actors share differentiated but complementary responsibilities. These responsibilities were articulated most recently and comprehensively in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights presented to the United Nations in March 2011. Familiarity with these principles would strengthen the project design, development, and implementation processes of engineers, and ensure engineering projects benefit the communities they are intended to serve without causing harm.

According to the Guiding Principles, “business enterprises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved.” Due diligence in this context includes putting in place human rights-related policies and processes, assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the assessment findings, tracking effectiveness of responses through appropriate qualitative and quantitative indicators, and communicating how impacts are addressed. While these may seem somewhat standard procedures, viewing this analysis through a human rights lens may require significantly different methods of assessment and produce different results from, for example, adopting a development, sustainability, or social justice lens.

Engineers have a tradition of contributing in practical and meaningful ways to development, but seldom within the explicit framework of human rights. Engineers have opportunities to contribute to human rights through research and teaching, to promote human rights compliance when designing and implementing projects, and to contribute to the realization of the right to benefit from “scientific progress and its applications.”At the same time, engineers have human rights that need to be respected in order for the engineering enterprise to flourish and the benefits of engineering to be broadly enjoyed. The challenge begins with engaging engineers in a dialogue about the connections between engineering and human rights, a conversation we have now begun.

Where to Find More: Resources for information on engineering, human rights, and development are available online. Websites of organizations mentioned in this article include:

The Science and Human Rights Coalition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, srhrl.aaas. org/coalition.
Information on the AAAS and science as a human right (Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) can be found at
Engineers Without Borders, .
Engineering for Change,
Some of the information in this article is derived from the following sources
“RAISE-ing the bar on research ethics” by B. Chajes (October 24, 2011). Available at:
“Science Magazine Prize Goes to Rice University Global Health Technologies Course” by M. Jarvis (April 30, 2012). Available at: http://www.eurekalert. org/pub_releases/2012-04/aaft-mp042012.php.
“A Human Rights Challenge to the Engineering Profession: Ethical Dimensions and Leadership Opportunities in Professional Formation” by
). Available at:
“Engineering, Social Justice, and Sustainable Community Development: Summary of a Workshop,” Advisory Group for the Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society: National Academy of Engineering (2010), p.40.
““Facilitating Humanitarian Access to Pharmaceutical and Agricultural Innovation”
, and
Innovation Strategy Today