Wednesday
22 May | 2024

Lahore, Pakistan

Rights chief urges universities to allow debate, safe spaces

Volker Turk says anti-Semitic conduct and speech totally unacceptable; calls anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian conduct and speech reprehensible equally

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk has said he was troubled by heavy-handed actions taken by US security forces during attempts to break up pro-Palestinian protests on university campuses across the United States.

“I am concerned that some of law enforcement actions across a series of universities appear disproportionate in their impacts,” he said in a press statement in which he made reference to sweeping arrests and sanctions of students. In recent days, demonstrations unfolding through tented encampments on school grounds – sparked by students at Columbia University in New York who are demanding authorities divest from Israel due to its occupation and military assault on Gaza – have spread nationwide.

Volker Turk says any violent conduct should be addressed on a case-by-case basis rather than through sweeping measures

University authorities from the west to east coast have taken different approaches, ranging from Columbia’s initial response to authorize police to clear protests by force to continuing negotiations and allowing encampments to remain. The protesters ignored an ultimatum from the university to leave the camp or risk suspension. Earlier, students took over Hamilton Hall on campus, barricading themselves inside. The building was one of those occupied in civil rights and Vietnam war protests by students in 1968.

The university president announced that dialogue with protesters had failed, and the institution would not bow to demands to divest from Israel. In his statement, Volker Turk said that freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly were fundamental to society, particularly when there is sharp disagreement on major issues as there is in relation to the conflict in the Palestinian territory and Israel. In recent weeks, he noted that thousands of university students in the US have been protesting the war, and many demonstrations have taken place without incident.

But there have also been hundreds of arrests following interventions on some campuses by the security forces, he pointed out. Many have subsequently been released while others still face charges or academic sanctions. Action taken by authorities and law enforcement officials to restrict such expression needs to be carefully scrutinized to ensure they do not go beyond what is demonstrably necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others or for another legitimate aim, such as maintenance of public health or order, the rights chief said.

US Universities
‘Any restriction to fundamental freedoms of expression must be guided by legality, necessity and proportionality and applied without discrimination’

He emphasized that any clearly anti-Semitic conduct and speech was totally unacceptable and deeply disturbing. Anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian conduct and speech are equally reprehensible, he said. “Incitement to violence or hatred on grounds of identity or viewpoints – whether real or assumed – must be strongly repudiated,” he continued. “We have already seen such dangerous rhetoric can quickly lead to real violence.” He said any violent conduct should be addressed on a case-by-case basis rather than through sweeping measures that impute to all members of a protest the unacceptable viewpoints of a few.

He said that here, as elsewhere, responses by universities and law enforcement need to be guided by human rights law, allowing vibrant debate and protecting safe spaces for all. He emphasized that any restrictions to fundamental freedoms of expression must be guided by legality, necessity and proportionality and applied without discrimination. “US universities have a strong, historic tradition of student activism, strident debate and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” he said.

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