Human rights warning for universities operating overseas

Legal obligations continue to apply in transnational setting, say Lancaster scholars

April 4, 2016
Medical staff protesting, Salmaniya Medical Complex, Bahrain
Source: Alamy
Duty of care: higher education providers have an obligation to try to ameliorate the wider human rights situation where they operate, such as Bahrain, scholars argue

Universities that deliver transnational programmes in countries with dubious human rights records have been warned that they are putting more than their reputations at risk.

Gearóid Ó Cuinn and Sigrun Skogly of Lancaster University Law School argue that institutions and accreditation agencies could potentially face legal challenges in their home countries if they do not use the course certification process to try to uphold human rights overseas.

Their argument hinges on the possible interpretation of the delivery of higher education as representing the administering of a public function; and on the likelihood that the accreditation of such activities would fall into this category.

Writing in the International Journal of Human Rights, Dr Ó Cuinn and Professor Skogly say that a series of cases at the European Court of Human Rights have established that a state’s obligations in this area continue to apply when it is invited to exercise a public function extraterritorially by another country.

In the article, they examine the delivery of medical education in Bahrain by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland under statutory regulation by the European country’s Medical Council, in the context of the protests that rocked the Arab state in early 2011.

The authors detail allegations of torture at a military hospital where RCSI-Bahrain training was provided and warn of “consistent violations” of medical neutrality in Bahrain’s health system. But, they say, the Medical Council renewed RCSI-Bahrain’s accreditation in 2014 without sufficient reference to human rights issues.

Dr Ó Cuinn and Professor Skogly say that higher education providers and agencies cannot be held responsible for the wider human rights situation in a country, but do have a duty to try to ameliorate the situation.

In the Bahrain example, they say, accreditation could have been refused, or made conditional on the local authorities taking steps to investigate and demonstrate accountability for complaints of torture.

In addition, Dr Ó Cuinn and Professor Skogly say that quality assurance must take account of circumstances on the ground, highlighting that simply providing a mechanism for students and staff to raise concerns may not be sufficient in societies where dissent is frowned upon.

Dr Ó Cuinn, an academic fellow in Lancaster’s law school, told Times Higher Education that institutions that fell short could potentially be subject to judicial review.

“[Institutions] need to factor human rights obligations into accreditation processes and oversight and make sure they understand [that] human rights law will continue to apply…Due diligence needs to incorporate human rights awareness, [it is not] a narrow, marketised thing that can exist in a bubble,” he said.

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