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Gaza protests: UN rights chief flags ‘disproportionate’ police action on US campuses

In recent days, demonstrations unfolding through tented encampments on school grounds – sparked by students at New York’s prestigious Columbia University who are demanding authorities divest from Israel due to its occupation and military assault on Gaza – have spread nationwide.

University authorities from the west to east coast have taken different approaches, ranging from Columbia’s initial response to authorise police to clear protests by force to continuing negotiations and allowing the encampments to remain.

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Columbia protests intensify

Columbia’s protesters ignored an ultimatum from the university to leave the camp or risk suspension on Monday. Early on Tuesday morning, students took over historic Hamilton Hall on campus, barricading themselves inside.

The building was one of those occupied in civil rights and Viet Nam war protests by students in 1968.

The university president announced earlier on Monday that dialogue with protesters had failed, and the institution would not bow to demands to divest from Israel.

Universities should ‘properly manage’ protest response: Guterres

Speaking to reporters in New York on the Gaza crisis, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was asked about the US protests.

“First of all I think it is essential in all circumstances to guarantee the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful demonstration but at the same time it is obvious that hate speech is unacceptable”, he said.

It should be left up to university authorities themselves to “properly manage” the situation and decide on the appropriate response to the protests, he added. 

Right to protest is ‘fundamental’

In his statement on Tuesday, UN rights chief Volker Türk said that freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly were “fundamental to society”, particularly when there is sharp disagreement on major issues as there is in relation to the conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel.

He noted that in recent weeks, thousands of university students in the US have been protesting the war, and many demonstrations have taken place without incident.

But, there have also been hundreds of arrests following interventions on some campuses by security forces. Many have subsequently been released while others still face charges or academic sanctions.

Action taken by authorities and law enforcement officials to restrict such expression needs to be carefully scrutinised to ensure they do not go beyond what is demonstrably necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others or for another legitimate aim, such as the maintenance of public health or order, Mr. Türk said.

Incitement to violence ‘must be strongly repudiated’

I am concerned that some of law enforcement actions across a series of universities appear disproportionate in their impacts,” he stressed.

The rights chief emphasised that any clearly anti-Semitic conduct and speech was totally unacceptable and deeply disturbing. Anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian conduct and speech are equally reprehensible, he said.

Incitement to violence or hatred on grounds of identity or viewpoints – whether real or assumed – must be strongly repudiated,” he continued. “We have already seen such dangerous rhetoric can quickly lead to real violence.”

He said any violent conduct should be addressed on a case-by-case basis rather than through sweeping measures “that impute to all members of a protest the unacceptable viewpoints of a few”.

A message of thanks to students around the world protesting events in Gaza is displayed on a tent in the south of the enclave.
UN News/Ziad Taleb

A message of thanks to students around the world protesting events in Gaza is displayed on a tent in the south of the enclave.

Human rights law

“Here, as elsewhere, responses by universities and law enforcement need to be guided by human rights law, allowing vibrant debate and protecting safe spaces for all.”

The High Commissioner emphasised that any restrictions to fundamental freedoms of expression must be guided by “legality, necessity and proportionality” and applied without discrimination.

“US universities have a strong, historic tradition of student activism, strident debate and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Mr. Türk said.

“It must be clear that legitimate exercises of the freedom of expression cannot be conflated with incitement to violence and hatred.”

Protesters demonstrate outside the Columbia University campus in New York City.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Protesters demonstrate outside the Columbia University campus in New York City.

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