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UN rights chief ‘troubled’ by ‘heavy-handed’ suppression of US student protests

May 1, 2024 at 11:05 am

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, on November 8, 2023 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday that he is “troubled” by the “heavy-handed” steps taken to disperse and dismantle pro-Palestine protests on university campuses in the US, Anadolu has reported.

“Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are fundamental to society, particularly when there is sharp disagreement on major issues, as there are in relation to the conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel,” said Volker Turk.

He added that any actions taken by university authorities and law enforcement officials to restrict such expression must be “carefully scrutinised” to ensure that they go no further than what is demonstrably necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

Such restrictions may be permissible for another legitimate purpose, explained Turk, such as maintenance of public health or order. “I am concerned that some of law enforcement actions across a series of universities appear disproportionate in their impacts.”

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Incitement to violence or hatred on grounds of identity or viewpoints “must be strongly repudiated,” stressed the senior UN official. “Such conduct can, and must be, addressed individually, rather than through sweeping measures that impute to all members of a protest the unacceptable viewpoints of a few.”

The human rights chief concluded by pointing out that, “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. It must be clear that legitimate exercises of the freedom of expression cannot be conflated with incitement to violence and hatred.”

Earlier on Tuesday, American police officers used violence to disperse a peaceful sit-in at the University of San Francisco. Videos of this were posted on social media.

Protests are sweeping campuses in the US following police attempts to clear a pro-Palestine encampment at New York’s Columbia University, resulting in the arrest of over 100 students.

The unprecedented student movement in the United States has spread to universities in countries such as France, Britain, Germany, Canada and India, all of which have witnessed demonstrations in support of their counterparts in US universities. The demands of the student protesters include an end to the Israeli war against the Palestinians in Gaza and for their universities to divest from companies that supply weapons to Israel.

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