Universities and Human Rights

GUNI (2005)

Universities have often been focal points in the defence of human rights. In this issue, we give examples of universities that have acted in response to or have stood up to denounce human rights abuses during conflicts or dictatorships in their countries. 

Where there is violent conflict or tyranny, there are usually human rights violations. Organised civil society can do a great deal in the struggle against these violations. Universities are actors in this organised civil society that have played a significant role in seeking to penalise human rights abuses.

In this issue, we are keen to spotlight the actions of universities in the countries that have suffered or are still suffering from the effect of wars or dictatorial regimes. Here, we will not be focusing on the initiatives taken by universities in other countries in solidarity with those countries that are directly involved in the conflict, such as, for example, when universities all over the world showed their opposition to the invasion of Iraq and some acted later in sending humanitarian aid.

Instead, we provide information on relatively recent conflicts, although in certain cases, such as the Middle Eastern conflict, these may be long-standing and almost, one might say, chronic. In keeping with the fact that this newsletter is published in electronic format, we have selected only online sources of information. We have found evidence of actions in favour of human rights at certain universities, although we have not been able to locate electronic documents that support these facts.

At any rate, we are sure to overlook universities that have fought against human rights violations in their countries. We make no claims that this newsletter serves the purpose of an in-depth study. Our aim is to provide an overview of the topic in each issue. Nevertheless, the actions that are not enumerated here are as valid as those that we are about to discuss.

Truth Commissions

Truth Commissions are organisations created in a given country to investigate human rights violations during a conflict or dictatorship. The Commission issues a final report, which is not necessarily binding, but that serves to gather evidence that can be considered by the actors who seek to do so.A number of universities have actively participated in Truth Commissions. Such is the case of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Committee for crimes against humanity and human rights violations perpetrated by government and terrorist organisations in the 1980s and 1990s. Salomón Lerner Febres, ex-rector of the aforementioned university, has in fact been the president of the Committee.

The Human Rights Centre of the Andrés Bello Catholic University of Venezuela and the Centre of Studies for Peace of the Central University of Venezuela (for further information) participated in the Venezuelan Truth Commission, which investigated human rights violations and crimes against humanity and against property committed by civil servants and other individuals during the political and social upheaval in Venezuela between 11 and 14 April 2002.

In El Salvador, the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, which actively participated in the Truth Commission that was set up to investigate the violent events that took place from 1980 to 1992 in that country, and which were the result of the conflict between the government of El Salvador and a guerilla movement, the Farabúndo Martí Front for National Liberation.

Argentina and Chile have also been involved in efforts to restore the memory of the relatives and those who disappeared during the dictatorships of Videla and Pinochet.

In the case of Argentina, we have been able to locate a document describing an initiative by the Free Chair of Health and Human Rights at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Buenos Aires to fight to bring charges against all the doctors who took part in the repression and for them to be barred from practising medicine for life. The Free Chairs of Human Rights of the Universities of la Pampa, Comahue and Tucumán have also made this demand.

In Chile, as in Argentina, many universities were central to the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship, as described in an article entitled 'The Universities the Dictatorship Left Us”, in the Report on the Centre for Studies of the Socialist Workers' Movement journal. In the Pinochet Case, in which charges have been brought against the dictator, one of the plaintiff's lawyers is Juan Bustos, a member of parliament and lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Chile (further information); two others, Hugo Gutiérrez and Boris Paredes, teach at the ARCIS University in Santiago de Chile.

Other Initiatives

Other initiatives taken at universities against human rights abuses are, for example, those carried out in relation to the Middle Eastern conflict. At the University of Najah, in Palestine, there is a UNESCO Chair of Human Rights, the objective of which is to disseminate information on whether human rights are being observed in Palestine, and to make that information reach the rest of the universities in the country. In Israel, the rector of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Jimmy Weinblat, made a declaration against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (an interview with Jerry Weinblat is available online).

In the former Yugoslavia, centres for human rights have been created at universities in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, to work together towards the reconciliation of communities in this area after the crimes perpetrated by the government against ethnic minorities during the Balkan War (University of Sarajevo, information on the other centres in these countries is available at the Human Rights Centre).

Universities in South Africa took action against apartheid and in favour of initiating the democratic process. One of the universities that was most active in this respect was the University of Witwatersrand. There, the Faculty of Law has been publishing the South African Journal for Human Rights, on law and human rights, since 1984. In 1986, the University of Pretoria created the Centre for Human Rights, before apartheid ended.

The Institute for the Justice and Reconciliation was created to help bring about the reconciliation of the black and white communities of South Africa. Their initiatives are backed by the faculties of law and of other disciplines at the universities in Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Western Cape.

There is also the UNESCO Chair of Human Rights at the University of Najah in Palestine, which we mentioned beforehand. There are in fact more than eighty chairs of this type at universities all over the world, which are listed on the UNESCO website.

As a final note, the objective of the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee, which is composed of 28 rectors of different universities, is to denounce and fight against violations of academic freedom by national governments and institutions in certain countries.

About the author

GUNI Secretariat

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

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