Carol Corillon, who has directed the Committee on Human Rights in the United States since 1984, said such action was necessary given academics’ position “as scientists, as supporters of science, and as people of conscience”.
She was speaking at Gresham College in London on 9 December as part of a series of events celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.
Her committee, she explained, was a joint initiative of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, and has intervened in many countries in support of persecuted scientific colleagues.
These included, for example, “engineers who expose shoddy school construction that has led to deaths of young children”, “forensic anthropologists who are exhuming the bodies of those who disappeared during dictatorships” and “statisticians who have published figures at odds with rosy-coloured government statistics”.
Their campaigns had led Ms Corillon and her committee into some dramatic situations in places such as Chile, India, Somalia and Turkey.
She gave an example of a mission to Guatemala in 1992, where a meeting with a general “widely believed to be involved in torture, disappearances and murders” was interrupted by the sudden appearance of two men swinging past the window. To this day, she is unsure whether they were “the general’s bodyguard, would-be assassins or simply window washers with a dangerous sense of timing”.
Yet, despite the inevitable setbacks, Ms Corillon was clear that the committee’s “appeals and statements of concern have led to changes in policy…One lesson is that even dictatorial and capricious leaders want to look good” – and can often respond favourably when people “appeal to their egos and vanity, approach them as if they are humanitarians”.
In another event as part of Cara’s anniversary, Jeremy Seabrook will be speaking at the London’s Weiner Library at 1pm on 12 December about “Britain’s attitude towards academic refugees”.