Charge of the freedom thinkers' brigade

February 12, 1999

Joseph Saunders describes the worldwide civil rights' work of the Academic Freedom Programme

Academics are favourite targets of tyrants. Universities provide a protected space for free inquiry and expression, and teachers and researchers play a central role in shaping the quality and flow of information and ideas.

Partly for these very reasons, academics are disproportionately represented among the world's political prisoners and universities are frequently subjected to intrusive government controls.

Consider three examples:

* In May 1998, under pressure from Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian parliament passed a law giving government officials de facto control over universities. Deans and other administrators were thrown out and leaders of the ruling parties put their political allies in charge of the campuses. The new appointees suspended or fired dozens of academics - including some of the most prominent scientists and scholars in the country - who had supported public protests against Milosevic in 1996-97.

* In Cuba, four independent scholars and researchers, leaders of a pro-democracy group called the Internal Dissidents' Working Group for the Analysis of the Cuban Socioeconomic Situation, have been imprisoned for more than 18 months, charged with sedition for peacefully expressing their views. The group had issued a paper, The Homeland Belongs to Everyone, in which they criticised a Communist Party discussion paper on the economy and argued for democracy.

* In November 1997, as dense haze from forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia blanketed Malaysia, the government issued a circular requiring that all researchers investigating the public health consequences of the air pollution have their work screened and preapproved by "higher authorities". The government claimed that screening was necessary because the foreign press had been manipulating reports on the ill-effects.

A university in the full sense of the term cannot exist where basic civil and political liberties are not respected. Conversely, strong, autonomous universities are integral to the development of civil society and the promotion of human rights. Although typically dependent on government subsidies, universities serve as an intellectual resource not only for political leaders but also for individuals and interests independent of the state. International human rights standards offer academics a principled basis for resisting authoritarian political pressures and defending the institutional autonomy necessary for academic integrity.

Human Rights Watch, in cooperation with some two dozen scholars and academic leaders, founded the Academic Freedom Programme in 1996. The programme aims to document and publicise abuses. In the coming year, we intend to continue monitoring Indonesia and Serbia, and to examine violations of the free expression rights of academics in Belarus, pressures for censorship in Egyptian universities and discrimination issues in Iran and Uzbekistan.

We will also continue to monitor the impact of Communist Party controls in Chinese universities, systematic discrimination against women and girls in educational institutions in Afghanis-tan; security regulations in Israel that arbitrarily restrict Gaza residents from attending universities in the West Bank; and the sacrifice of academic freedom standards by western universities that enter into joint ventures or open branches in countries where free expression and academic freedom are not protected.

Although a human rights organisation can uncover facts and help to identify and publicise abuses, its ability to apply sustained pressure is limited. The efforts of citizens' groups and professional associations able to draw on mass constituencies and act in concert over extended periods of time are far more important.

Our work on Serbia in recent months has brought to light an anomaly. At the University of Belgrade, the three faculties hardest hit by the political takeover of the universities have been electrical engineering, law, and philology (which includes languages and literatures). In seeking to enlist academics in the West to protest against these developments, we found that professional academic associations in the sciences already had committees devoted to human rights and were able to mobilise their memberships.

Equivalent support in the humanities and social sciences, however, was lacking.

Defence of academic freedom and the basic rights of academics worldwide should be a regular part of the activities of professional academic associations. Principled interventions not only help overseas colleagues but also bring attention to the value of strong, healthy universities at home.

Joseph Saunders is associate counsel responsible for academic freedom research at Human Rights Watch.

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