Today is International Human Rights Day, but some friends and I have a bit of a bad taste in our mouths. We've just finished an MA in Human Rights from University College London and the recent news that the University of London have obtained a court order banning students from peacefully occupying space on campus has alarmed us.
It seems contradictory to us that an Institution that has prepared us for a life as human rights practitioners has now curtailed the democratic rights of its students.
The rights to 'freedom of expression' and 'freedom of assembly and association' are enshrined in Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Our University is the last entity we would expect to place limitations on these rights.
We believe that the ban on occupational protests is entirely disproportionate and deeply concerning. The University management ought to engage in meaningful dialogue with its students who were demonstrating to communicate urgent messages about university staff's labour rights and the marketisation of education, rather than repressing their actions.
Peaceful protest is one of the few tools that students have to express their dissatisfaction to institutions and the wider public. They are able to mobilise in large numbers, and have done so throughout history. In the past few years, students have peacefully occupied university spaces in an attempt to fight back against decisions that impact considerably on their financial future and current position such as education cuts, the tripling of university fees and the privatisation of university services. They have also used their ability and time to demonstrate on behalf of others in the university community, as seen in the 3 Cosas campaign, which calls for the University of London to improve the poor labour conditions of university staff.
Restricting students' ability to exercise their right to peaceful protest and threatening them with a criminal record for attempting to do so is worrying.
We do not believe that universities are solely the property of their management. Without the students, there would be no university at all.
Occupations are historically a peaceful and powerful method for students to express their discontent with institutional decisions that affect them. It is our belief that students who care enough to take to the streets and communicate their message with the Universities should be met with open ears and constructive dialogue, rather than silencing methods, police intimidation and violence, and threats of legal action.
A copy of our open letter is below, and the full list of signatories will continue to update here. Anyone who would like to sign the letter in solidarity with us is welcome to add their name via the comment feature on this website.
Here is our letter:
10th of December 2013: Human Rights Day
Dear Vice-Chancellor Adrian Smith and Chief Operating Officer Chris Cobb,
On International Human Rights day, as recent alumni and current students of the University of London, we would like to express our deep concern regarding the court order, obtained on the 4th of December, banning occupational protests in parts of the University of London's Holborn campus. We believe that this court order restricts students' right to peaceful protest and contradicts the spirit of the University of London's own human rights curriculum.
We chose to come to the University of London, a world-leading academic institution, to study a Masters degree in human rights. As the University of London offers human rights courses in four of its major colleges, we are deeply disturbed by the institution's decision to curtail the democratic rights of its students on campus.
The court order threatens students with imprisonment or fines for all occupational protests taking place in certain areas of the University of London campus during the next six months. We believe that this undermines students' rights to freedom of assembly and expression, and restricts their ability to engage in critical dialogue with the University of London community, as well as with wider society.
The University of London has stated that it will not stop peaceful protests from taking place, despite imposing a ban on all occupational protests in some parts of its campus. If the University does intend to permit all peaceful protests taking place during the next six months, it is not clear why the obtained court order is necessary. We are concerned that the ban will act as a limitation and deterrent for all protests, including peaceful ones that do not involve occupation.
We acknowledge that, should a student behave violently during a protest, they may face legal consequences. However, imposing a ban on all occupational protests in certain areas of the University campus is an entirely disproportionate response. The University of London ought to engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue with student-led campaigns instead of threatening peaceful protestors with legal action.
Furthermore, we are highly concerned regarding the alleged police violence against student protestors at the University of London campus in the first week of December. An immediate, impartial and thorough investigation should be conducted into these allegations.
In summary, the University of London's response to recent student protests has been disproportionate and an alarming curtailment of students' democratic rights and freedoms. We urge you to immediately call on the High Court of Justice to revoke the order restricting students' ability to protest. The University of London must also offer its full support to investigations into alleged police violence against student protestors.
Universities ought to be nuclei of societal dialogue, as well as progressive political thought and action. Under no circumstances should they repress peaceful demonstrations. We stand in solidarity with all students of the University who exercise their right to peaceful protest, and denounce all attempts to curtail this right.
We ask you to ensure that the University of London acts in accordance with the essential spirit of human rights, including the rights to assembly and expression, the theory and practice of which are taught in the lecture theatres and rooms of your own institutions.
Thank you for your attention on this urgent matter.
Students of the MA Human Rights Course
School of Public Policy, UCL
A full (and constantly updating) list of signatories is available here.