There will always be a gulf between those who advocate boycotts and bans and those arguing for the building of cultural bridges of persuasion. However, recent calls for such things by academics and students raise fundamental questions for the future of academic freedom because the threats to it are now coming from within the academy as well as from without.
It speaks well of students and academics that we want to ensure that those who have previously been under-represented and discriminated against should feel equal and safe. This was the reason for the boycott of universities in apartheid-era South Africa. South Africa was the only state that denied the humanity of the majority of its citizens on a legally organised, racial basis; that justified what was, in a sense, a restriction of freedom of speech on UK campuses.
Last month’s academic call for a boycott of Israeli universities and recent student demands to bar speakers such as Iranian human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie and writer Germaine Greer from speaking at universities raise the question again: do we wish universities to remain places for intellectual enquiry and debate, and if we do, when is there a time for restricting this role?
The fear of offending is growing in the lecture hall. Every year I begin my course on international human rights by asking students which countries violate them. This is to test their knowledge of what constitutes human rights. A few years ago, students would be happy to name states in different continents, with a range of religions. Recently students have become reticent, willing to name only their own countries of birth. But while, for example, the UK, Canada and the Republic of Ireland do not have unblemished human rights records, they are democratic, recognise religious freedom and do not practise widespread repression. It is as if students feel vulnerable criticising any group to which they do not belong. But how do we assist those who live in situations of peril unless we can discuss subjects openly, judging all countries by the same international human rights standards?
Israel’s closest parallel concerning occupation may be China. In 1950, the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet in peacetime. Israel entered the occupied territories after it was attacked in 1967, and although an offer was made to return them in exchange for peace, this offer was rejected and Israel still illegally retains them. Both occupations have led to grave human rights violations, and both Tibetans and Palestinians have called for self-determination.
As Amnesty International reports, there are widespread human rights violations in China, with “an estimated 500,000 people…currently enduring punitive detention without charge or trial” and also “repression of minority groups, including Tibetans”. Yet there is no academic call to boycott Chinese universities: quite the opposite. Maintaining contact with other universities may help to promote the protection of human rights. If there must be boycotts, the academic community needs to be consistent in how it judges states. Are human rights violations in countries other than Israel less serious, less worthy of academic attention?
While some academics will not talk to Israeli universities, many students will not permit others to listen to Greer because of her wrong and offensive view that transgender women are not really women. We need to engage with those with whom we disagree. I am not minimising feelings of hurt or of physical threat. As a student I was told, on a number of occasions, that I should follow members of my family into the gas chambers. There is, however, a thin line between creating a safe space and restricting freedom of speech and association. Perhaps guidance should be sought from international law. The European Court of Human Rights has said that freedom of expression applies not only to information or ideas that are “favourably received or regarded as inoffensive…but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population”.
It is paradoxical that there is a vastly increased range of information now available through technology, yet we seem to wish to communicate only with those with like-minded views.
Geraldine Van Bueren QC is professor of international human rights law at Queen Mary University of London.