Activities of the committee include private inquiries, appeals to governments, moral support to prisoners and their families, and consciousness-raising efforts such as workshops and symposia. Periodically, it undertakes a mission of inquiry to a country. It issues public statements regarding a case or reports on the human rights situation in a country only when significant private efforts have proved unsuccessful and after the NAS Council and the presidents of the NAE and IOM have approved such action by the committee. The committee also is a catalyst for human rights issues of concern to the members of the academy complex.
The committee serves as the secretariat for the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies. The Network, created in 1993, works to address grave issues of science and human rights, particularly the unjust detention or imprisonment of colleagues, throughout the world. Currently, science academies and scholarly societies in 28 countries are participants in the Network; each is represented by internationally prominent members who are also human rights advocates.