Whistleblowers: Soas faces ethics row

December 21, 2000

Students at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies are demanding formal guidelines on ethics for researchers, following The THES 's report of a senior academic's links with the military dictatorship in Burma.

The THES reported that Elizabeth Moore, head of the department of arts and archaeology, has been cooperating closely with the dictatorship's Office for Strategic Studies on a number of projects. Scholars said her links with a regime notorious for some of the worst human rights abuses and the suppression of dissent and academic freedom raise important ethical questions. Gustaaf Houtman, deputy director of the United Kingdom's Royal Anthropological Institute, said that her work could be exploited to bolster the dictatorship.

Dr Moore is in Burma and has been unavailable for comment. The university declined to comment on the situation. It has told students that "as a matter of policy, the school respects the freedom of academics to work in whichever country they wish and as is necessary for the conduct of their research". But students are concerned that this statement is too ambiguous and that it leaves the university open to serious ethical concerns.

The students' union is lobbying Soas's executive board on the issue. It said in a letter to the executive board: "The union feels that it is important to raise awareness of research ethics and the consequences of not having these in place." A petition will be launched at the start of next term.

The controversy over Burma follows concerns about the university's decision last year to accept a donation from the Iranian government, which attracted widespread international disquiet and also highlighted the absence of ethical guidelines.

The THES revealed in December 1999 that Soas had accepted tens of thousands of pounds from the Iranian ministry of culture and higher education to establish two three-year research fellowships. One of the postdoctoral fellowships was taken by the institute's director, the brother of the head of Iran's revolutionary guards.

Academic board minutes confirm that 73 academics had called for the deal to be rescinded because they were concerned by the school's association with "ultra-conservative factions of the Iranian regime". Despite opposition the deal was ratified, but it was agreed that a working party would be set up to "codify the principles upon which future decisions would be based in regard to acceptances of donor support".

Students are now demanding a similar commitment to research ethics.

Burma link prompts resignation calls

Lord Alexander of Weedon, Exeter University's chancellor, has offered to meet students to discuss his controversial role as a non-executive director of Total-Fina-Elf, the French oil giant criticised by human rights campaigners for doing business with the military dictatorship in Burma.

Students have organised protests and collected more than 700 signatures calling for Lord Alexander to resign either as chancellor or from his role at Total. The students said Total-Fina-Elf's investments in Burma helped support the illegal military regime and its abuses of human rights.

A university spokesman said: "As chancellor, he holds an honorary position and has not been scheduled to visit the university during or since the students' actions. He has asked the protesters to write a 'reasoned letter' explaining their criticisms, to which he will be happy to reply. He has also offered to speak with officers of the Guild of Students when he next visits the university."

Lord Alexander has been a non-executive director of Total-Fina-Elf "since well before he was appointed chancellor and this has always been a matter of public record", he added.

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