Protecting academic freedom and higher education

image1-1Today, Tuesday 23 June, OIDEL participated in a side event on the protection of academic freedom and higher education organised at the United Nations by the Permanent Mission of Portugal. The focus of the event was set on the presentation by Scholars at Risk of their latest report: ‘Free to Think’. (The report is available here: http://www.scholarsatrisk.org.)

Mr. Nuno Cabral, First Secretary of the Permanent Mission of Portugal and moderator of the event, introduced the three panellists by underlining the importance of discussing the issue of threats against academic freedom and higher education in the context of the right to education. He also reminded participants that Portugal, as the main sponsor of resolutions on the right to education to the Human Rights Council for the past two decades, has a particular interest and concern in this issue.

Mr. Robert Quinn, Executive Director of Scholars at Risk, then introduced his organisation’s report ‘Free to Think’. He explained that Scholars at Risk has set up the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project after noticing the lack of existing data on attacks on scholars. The report released today presents the first results of this project, documenting 333 attacks throughout 65 countries. Mr. Quinn emphasised the fact that cases have not been analysed through a national prism but rather with regard to their nature. They have been divided into five main categories, first among which is ‘killings, violence and disappearances’, covering one-third of all documented cases. He further mentioned that the report takes into account attacks in both conflict and non-conflict situations, perpetrated by both State and non-State actors. He finished his presentation by calling for a constructive partnership between States, academic institutions and civil society to work together on tackling these issues.

The second panellist, a professor from the University of Damascus currently refuged in Switzerland stressed, under the cover of anonymity, the difficulty of the situation for scholars in Syria. She said that professors under the Syrian regime have no freedom of thought, expression or movement and that the government keeps them under close control. Teaching curricula in adequate conditions is also very complicated, particularly due to the lack of resources. She concluded her testimony by regretting the lack of involvement of the international community to take the necessary measures to improve this situation.

Finally, Mr. Guilain Mathe, a scholar from the Democratic Republic of Congo also currently refuged in Switzerland, presented his contribution to the report. His research focuses on ten Sub-Saharan countries in a situation of conflict or presenting weak democratic institutions. To this day he has documented 30 cases of attacks. The main trends he identified as leading to attacks include lack of democracy within universities, lack of accountability of political officials and armed groups and lack of mediatisation of attacks. As a mean to tackle the lack of academic freedom, Mr. Mathe made three suggestions: instituting democratic governance in universities; reinforcing awareness among scholars or their rights; creating partnerships with the civil society, especially NGOs working on human rights.

In the discussion following these presentations, the panel was invited to reflect on various questions including: How has the report, from a methodological point of view, selected the cases it has taken into account as effectively violating the right of the scholars? To which normative perspective can these violations be ascribed under international law? How might such violations be effectively tackled?

Jack Wattiaux

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