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Human Rights Day: How Nuclear Science Helps Countries Guarantee Basic Rights to Water, Food and Health

Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

As we mark Human Rights Day with a hopeful look towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, it strikes me as a good time to highlight the often-underappreciated ways the atom supports the attainment of our fundamental human rights.

The role of the IAEA as the world’s “nuclear watchdog” is essential to global peace and security and needs no preamble. By guarding against nuclear proliferation, the Agency supports peace and freedom from oppression. But the IAEA also contributes significantly to social and economic rights around the world. By working to ensure that everyone can benefit from nuclear science, the IAEA underpins rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976. These include the right to benefit from scientific progress; the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to the highest-attainable standard of health.

The Agency does this by using nuclear science to combat zoonotic diseases; bolster food safety; protect fruits from pests; strengthen water management; treat cancer; and of course, to help countries mitigate climate change.

Supporting these fundamental human development areas is at the core of the IAEA’s technical cooperation assistance. More than 140 countries – including many least developed nations, 26 in Africa – come to the IAEA seeking science-based solutions to manage resources, tackle a growing incidence of chronic and infectious diseases and to boost productivity through clean and reliable industrial processes.

Just last year, the IAEA supported 2081 fellows and trained more than 3,400 scientists and specialists. These learned, among others, to use isotopic techniques to check the origin and quality of fresh water, how to develop heat-resistant varieties of tomatoes, and to protect patients so that they receive just the right dose of radiation to beat a tumour.

Supporting countries to prosper has been at the heart of our work since the IAEA was created in 1957 with the statutory mission to “accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world.”

This mandate could not be more timely.

Nuclear science and technology contribute directly to several Sustainable Development Goals – from zero hunger to life on land. And their contribution will continue to grow as countries seek to address the big challenges of our time.

Let’s take zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19. Many countries turned to the IAEA for support during the pandemic, as nuclear-derived PCR tests are the most accurate and reliable way to detect viruses. The Agency shipped more than 1,873 consignments of virus detection equipment to 126 countries and territories.  And looking to the future, we launched the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative to build the human, infrastructure and scientific capacity in countries to enhance global preparedness against zoonotic disease outbreaks and prevent future health crisis brought upon by diseases that transition from animals to humans.

Climate change is another major current threat to humanity where nuclear technology is part of the solution. Efforts to avert the devastating effects of burning fossil fuels require immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the energy sector. As a reliable source of low-carbon electricity, nuclear power can significantly contribute to this. The IAEA helps countries in the efficient, safe and secure use of this sustainable energy. It supports existing and new nuclear programmes around the world, serving as a catalyst for innovation and building capacity from energy planning and analysis to design, construction, operation, and knowledge management.

As we emerge from the pandemic facing economic uncertainty, sustainable development is high on the world agenda. This requires that we provide all available tools to help countries safeguard their people’s basic rights, such as access to safe food, water, adequate health care, energy and the benefits of scientific progress. Nuclear science and technology are powerful tools that will be indispensable to drive this progress.

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