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Academic freedom essential to fight COVID-19, says UN expert

NEW YORK (23 October 2020) – Scholars and academic institutions must be given the freedom to pursue and disseminate knowledge without harassment, repression, threats and attacks by state or non-state actors, a UN human rights expert told the UN General Assembly today.

“The horrific incident last week in which a teacher was decapitated on the street for what he had discussed in class was a chilling reminder of the violent attacks on freedom of expression. In combating such attacks, States must respect their obligations under international law,” said Irene Khan, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

“In almost every region of the world, academics face harassment, retaliation, repression, imprisonment and sometimes even death for the issues they pursue, the ideas they explore, the questions they raise, and the methodologies they bring to bear on public policy,” Khan said in presenting to the General Assembly a report on the significance of freedom of opinion and expression to academic freedom.

The report, prepared by her predecessor, addresses the broad scope of academic freedom, and notes the protection offered by a wide range of human rights, including the right to freedom of opinion and expression. It underlines the vital role of the academic community in democratic society, and calls on governments to refrain from attacking scholars and eroding the autonomy of academic institutions. It recommends the international human rights system to monitor academic freedom as a measure of human rights.

“Censorship kills scholarship. Attacks on academic freedom corrode the pillars of democratic life, scientific progress, human development, and also the right of all human beings to freedom of opinion and expression,” Ms. Khan stated.

“In the face of the unprecedented challenge of finding an effective response to COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that the academic community be allowed to research, debate and disseminate and share knowledge freely including through across border cooperation without harassment, repression or persecution.”

“The imperative to respect, protect and strengthen academic freedom has never been greater,” she said.

The report was presented to the General Assembly on 23 October 2020.


The Expert: Ms Irene Khan was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression on 17 July 2020. Ms Khan is the first woman to hold this position since the establishment of the mandate in 1993. She teaches at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and was previously Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2001 to 2009 and head of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) from 2012 to 2019.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please write to: freedex@ohchr.org.

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org), Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jlaurence@ohchr.org) and Kitty McKinsey (kmckinsey@ohchr.org)

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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