When academic freedom is threatened

Published on March 16, 2017

To defend academic freedom, UCL joined the Scholars at Risk network. ‘In the eyes of power thinkers are by definition suspect’, says Amnesty International.

UCL joins Scholars at risk

UCL wants to take clear action in defence of academic freedom – the freedom to teach, to research and to express oneself,” explains Prof. Dana Samson, Pro-Rector for International Affairs, who is responsible for human rights, “but this cannot be improvised. Hosting academics who are at risk raises a series of questions regarding safety, professional ethics and personal well-being.” This was one of the reasons behind UCL’s decision to join the Scholars at Risk network, which aims not only to protect scholars who are in danger, but also to raise awareness about academic freedom. “Scholars at Risk has a long experience in the protection of scholars who are in danger, and it plays an important intermediary and advisory role to ensure professional hosting. At UCL, we want to put in place a permanent solution that will allow us to host scholars at risk and provide them with the right conditions to pursue their academic work,” continues the Pro-Rector. “Besides this, our teachers and researchers can also take part in raising awareness : for example, law students can be encouraged to help with the preparation of the annual report of the organisation about academic freedom across the world. Other types of action are also possible, such as inviting scholars who are in danger, to take part in conferences or organising workshops to share good practices with other universities.” D.H.

Des universités traversées par les droits humains

« Historiquement, les académiques ont toujours été parmi les premiers visés. Les penseurs sont par définition suspects aux yeux du pouvoir », explique Philippe Hensmans, directeur d’Amnesty international Belgique francophone qui regrette qu’on assiste aujourd’hui à des dérives du pouvoir vis-à-vis de personnes qui pourraient potentiellement contrer les valeurs gouvernementales. « L’enseignement est un enjeu majeur, aussi pour les dictatures », poursuit-il. « Il faut transmettre des valeurs aux jeunes et faire en sorte que l’enseignement réponde à certains besoins. Les restrictions à l’encontre des enseignants sont parfois brutales, parfois modérées. Je parlerais d’une échelle, pas d’un hit-parade. »

Philippe Hensmans pointe la responsabilité du monde académique. « Au moment de signer des conventions de collaboration qui impliquent, de près ou de loin, des gouvernements, l’université devrait faire savoir qu’elle est soumise à certaines pressions en Belgique eu égard à la situation des droits de l’homme dans le pays concerné. » Autre suggestion : examiner, au cas par cas, tout ce qui est fait en lien avec les droits humains, qu’il s’agisse des réfugiés ou la violence conjugale (thème peu examiné par la recherche). Et de donner en exemple une commune bruxelloise qui a procédé à pareille évaluation, découvrant que beaucoup d’actions positives concernaient déjà les droits humains, pointant ce qui pouvait encore être fait. « Toutes les universités pourraient agir de la sorte, aussi vis-à-vis des étudiants, en développant une philosophie qui inclut les droits humains à tous les niveaux », suggère-t-il. D.H.

> www.amnesty.be

Ever-growing demand

First set up at the University of Chicago in the year 2000 and based at New York University since 2005, the Scholars at Risk (SAR) international network brings together institutions and individuals who want to defend academic freedom and protect those who exercise it. Specifically, any academic who feels in danger may approach the organisation which, after looking into the case, will look for one or more universities which are in a position to host this person, temporarily, in successive different locations. Since its foundation, Scholars at Risk has considerably expanded its activities and partnerships. “If the number of partner institutions has increased in recent years,” explains Daniel Murier, SAR press officer, “it’s because the number of requests for assistance is growing.” The war in Syria and the situation in Turkey are obviously factors here. “Many universities have become aware of the importance of supporting colleagues who are at risk by joining the network, offering temporary positions and expressing their solidarity,” he continues. At present, the network is helping some 300 scholars around the world ; as well as looking for temporary positions, this includes career development counselling and advice for legal aid. “There is a fast growing demand for our services and we are still racing to review applications, connect threatened scholars with host institutions, and monitoring and reporting on attacks on higher education communities around the world,” concludes Daniel Munier. D.H.

> www.scholarsatrisk.org/