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Western Academics Criticise Choice of Qatar to Host Next Year’s World Congress of Bioethics

Updated: 16 July 2023

DOHA—Some Western academics have criticised the choice of Qatar to host next year’s World Congress of Bioethics, expressing concerns about Qatar’s human rights record.

The International Association of Bioethics chose Doha to host the 2024 congress last July–the first time the event will be held in a Middle Eastern country. Bioethics is the study and professional practice of ethics in health, particularly as it relates to the ethical problems of new technology.

In March, a group of professors and bioethicists from three Dutch universities published a letter in the journal Bioethics expressing concerns about “ethics washing” because Qatar will be hosting the event. The letter particularly mentioned concerns about “violations of human rights”, including the country’s treatment of migrant workers, women’s rights, corruption, and the criminalisation of lesbian, gay, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people, as well as Qatar’s impact on climate change.

Rieke van der Graaf, an associate professor of bioethics at the University Medical Center Utrecht, is listed as the main contact in the letter. She declined to comment when contacted by Al-Fanar Media.

A Professor in Qatar Responds

Mohammed Ghaly, a professor of Islam and biomedical ethics at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, is the scholar behind the proposal for Qatar to host the event. Ghaly says that he supports the discussion around the eligibility of Qatar as host, but with certain conditions.

“You cannot pinpoint a country, which happens to be an Arab Muslim country, and say to me, according to my criteria, Qatar is not eligible.”

Mohammed Ghaly, a professor of Islam and biomedical ethics at Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University

“You cannot pinpoint a country, which happens to be an Arab Muslim country, and say to me, according to my criteria, Qatar is not eligible,” he said. “This discussion should be based on consistent criteria that we agree on as a bioethics community, and applied to all future hosts.”

Ghaly and two co-authors wrote a letter in response to the Western academics’ concerns that was published in the May issue of Bioethics. It also emphasised that such debates “should be based on meticulously discussed, informed, consistent and equitable criteria”, and added: “We also argue that mutual learning from diverse cultures and moral traditions is the optimal way for our scholarly community to be truly global and to eschew the flaws ensuing from ethnocentric discourses.”

Ghaly believes that the discussion about Qatar hosting the event has been affected by the controversy over Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup last year.

“I would say that the colleagues who wrote the article and those who raised these criticisms, they are influenced by this ‘World Cup syndrome’,” he said. “They forget that, unlike the World Cup, the host of this congress is an institute, not a country.”

The 17th World Congress of Bioethics is scheduled to be held June 3 to 6 at the Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics in Doha, in partnership with the World Innovation Summit for Health.

Previous Conferences in Qatar

It is not the first time research institutions in Qatar have hosted events about bioethical issues.

In 2012, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar organised its first international conference on Islamic bioethics in Doha. The conference brought together experts from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East to explore Muslim, Catholic, and secular approaches to the understanding of bioethics.

“What matters is this: Academic core principles were guaranteed during each of these events: open debate, no restrictions on topics or points of view. The Congress in Qatar will be measured against this firmly established academic standard.”

Udo Schüklenk, a Canadian professor of bioethics and the editor in chief of Bioethics

In 2017, Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) organised a three-day seminar on “Islamic Ethics and the Genome Question”, and the following year it hosted an international conference on the “Policies, Regulations, and Bioethics of Genomic Research”.

For Ghaly, to be legitimate concerns should focus on the academic infrastructure of the host institution and its ability to guarantee discussion of sensitive topics during the congress.

Focusing on Academic Freedom

Udo Schüklenk, a professor at Canada’s Queen’s University who holds the Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics, is the editor in chief of Bioethics. In an editorial in the journal’s May issue, he says that people deciding on their involvement in the conference should focus on whether participants will have academic freedom.

Schüklenk points out that concerns over human rights violations or whether LGBTQ+ people could safely attend did not feature in conversations about about previous congress venues, which include China, India and Singapore.

“What matters is this: Academic core principles were guaranteed during each of these events: open debate, no restrictions on topics or points of view. The Congress in Qatar will be measured against this firmly established academic standard,” he wrote.

However, in an email responding to questions from Al-Fanar, he said that “with regard to Qatar, and sadly so, this can only be guaranteed by offering virtual in addition to in-person participation.”

In his email, Schüklenk referred to the case of Qatari physician Nasser “Nas” Mohamed, who came out gay and sought asylum in the United States last year.

“If (he) wanted to participate in-person (say, on a panel on the professional obligations of health care professionals vis a vis homosexual patients in countries like Qatar), he would run significant personal risks, given that he is also holder of a Qatari passport, in addition to a U.S. passport,” Schüklenk said. “This probably best exemplifies the fine line academic conference organisers tread when they decide to hold meetings in countries like Qatar.”

Association’s Leaders Respond

In a separate commentary also published in the May issue of Bioethics, top leaders of the International Association of Bioethics also responded to the Dutch professors’ concerns.

The International Association of Bioethics requires all prospective conference hosts “to commit to furnishing a Congress venue where bioethics can be debated freely in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”

IAB President Nancy Jecker and Vice President Vardit Ravitsky

On the professors’ doubts about “the possibility of free speech in Qatar because of its ‘repressive regime’,” IAB President Nancy Jecker and Vice President Vardit Ravitsky wrote that the association requires all prospective conference hosts “to commit to furnishing a Congress venue where bioethics can be debated freely in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”

They added: “However, IAB does not require a host country’s government to be democratic. If we did, nearly 39% of countries would not be eligible.”

Jecker is a professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle, and Ravitsky is a professor of bioethics at the University of Montreal’s School of Public. In their response, they welcomed the event going to Qatar as a chance to bring diverse voices to the global dialogue around bioethics.

Ghaly agreed, saying this was the whole point of the event.

“We need to diversify the field of bioethics and enrich it through insights from various religious traditions,” he said. “It is also a learning moment for us to know how scientists from other regions are addressing bioethical concerns. This is how bioethical discourse can be truly global.”

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