A growing number of scientific practices have extended beyond national borders and the necessity of setting universal ethical guidelines covering all issues raised in the field of bioethics and the need to promote the emergence of shared values have increasingly been a feature of the international debate. The need for standard-setting action in the field of bioethics is felt throughout the world, often expressed by scientists and practitioners themselves and by lawmakers and citizens.
States have a special responsibility not only with respect to bioethical reflection but also in the drafting of any legislation that may follow. In the field of bioethics, whilst many States have framed laws and regulations aimed at protecting human dignity and human rights and freedoms, many other countries wish to establish benchmarks and sometimes lack the means to do so.
At its 31st session in 2001, the General Conference invited the Director-General to submit “the technical and legal studies undertaken regarding the possibility of elaborating universal norms on bioethics”.
At the request of the Director-General, the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) therefore drafted the Report of the IBC on the Report of the IBC on the Possibility of Elaborating a Universal Instrument on Bioethics [PDF, 82 KB] finalized on 13 June 2003. The Report examines some issues in bioethics that could be addressed in an international instrument and illustrates how the elaboration of such an instrument could contribute to and support international efforts being made to provide ethical guidelines in matters related to recent scientific developments. The Report explores the likely form and scope of an instrument as well as its value in terms of education, information dissemination, awareness-raising and public debate.
At its 32nd session in October 2003, the General Conference considered that it was “opportune and desirable to set universal standards in the field of bioethics with due regard for human dignity and human rights and freedoms, in the spirit of cultural pluralism inherent in bioethics” (32 C/Res. 24).
The General Conference also invited “the Director-General to continue preparatory work on a declaration on universal norms on bioethics, by holding consultation with Member States, the other international organizations concerned and relevant national bodies, and to submit a draft declaration to it at its 33rd session” (32 C/Res. 24).
As to the form of the instrument, IBC – supported by Member States during the General Conference – came out clearly in favour of an instrument of a declaratory nature, at least initially, which would be best suited to a constantly changing context and would enable the broadest possible consensus to be reached among Member States.
The form of the instrument does not prevent its content from contributing to a code of universally recognized general principles of bioethics (such as human dignity, solidarity, freedom of research, respect for privacy, confidentiality, non-discrimination, informed consent, integrity of research and intellectual honesty) insofar as these principles pertain to bioethics. Lastly, an instrument on bioethics must call strong attention to the importance of awareness-raising, information, education, consultation and public debate.
Over the years UNESCO has confirmed its standard-setting role in bioethics. UNESCO has contributed to the formulation of basic principles in bioethics through in particular the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, adopted unanimously and by acclamation by the General Conference in 1997 and endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1998, and the International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, adopted unanimously and by acclamation by the General Conference on 16 October 2003.
Apart from the fact that ethical issues related to the advances in life sciences and their applications were and still are highly topical, the depth and extent of their roots in the cultural, philosophical and religious bedrocks of various human communities were reason enough for UNESCO, the only organization whose fields of competence include the social and human sciences, true to its ethical vocation, to take the lead in this initiative.
UNESCO was obviously not able to embark alone on such an undertaking. If the first steps of the elaboration of the declaration were entrusted to IBC, in close consultation with the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC), only the participation of all the actors concerned could ensure that all the different perceptions of ethical and legal issues were taken into account.
As explicitly requested by Member States, wide-ranging consultations and hearings were therefore held from the very beginning of the elaboration of the declaration in order to involve in particular States, the United Nations and the other specialized agencies of the United Nations system, other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations and appropriate national bodies and specialists.