Academic boycott
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Academic boycott
Academic boycotts are once again in the spotlight. This week, the question will return to the University of Johannesburg (UJ) senate whether it should discontinue its research relationship with Ben Gurion University (BGU).

Published in : BusinessDay, 2011/03/22
If it decides to terminate the relationship on the grounds that this would be contrary to the values of UJ — which involve respecting diversity, and human dignity — it will be required to evaluate all its existing agreements with institutions abroad. It is likely that further discontinuations will be required, including that with a university in Belarus.

Though some academics have come out in support of an academic boycott, many others have not. It is important to understand the reasons why some of us who are deeply committed to promoting fundamental rights in all parts of the world believe academic boycotts are a seriously misguided strategy.

Academic institutions generally promote research aimed at developing our understanding of our world. The academic project has always been one characterised by collaboration and engagement. Colleagues interact with one another: some form joint research projects; others attend conferences and engage critically with each other’s work. These connections are vital in the pursuit and advancement of knowledge.

That collaboration occurs across borders and indeed, occasionally, with individuals and institutions that exist in contexts where there are moral shortcomings. During the First World War, for instance, many scientists in the UK discontinued their relationship with German scientists and institutions. Arthur Eddington, a brilliant Cambridge scientist, resisted the pressure to boycott "the Germans" and continued his academic correspondence with Albert Einstein. After the war, in 1919, that engagement led to one of the greatest scientific moments of the twentieth century when Eddington’s measurements of light during a solar eclipse provided support for Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

The water research UJ is conducting with BGU may not be of the same magnitude as this discovery but it could hold significant benefits relating to the purification of water and the development of biofuels. This could help ensure the realisation of the right to safe and healthy drinking water, for instance, for many disadvantaged South Africans as well as needy individuals all around the world.

In general, it is clear academics and their institutions should be free to collaborate and develop their research for the benefit of all.

Yet most of us would recognise that there are some moral limits to this broad principle. If Eddington had been co-operating with Einstein on the production of poisonous gas, most of us would have supported ending the scientific relationship between them during war. If there is an intimate connection between a research relationship and a serious human rights violation, then that research relationship should be discontinued.

This principle, however, must be construed narrowly if it is not to harm academic collaboration and avoid undesirable consequences. An illustration of this is the erroneous argument made by some proponents of the BGU boycott that BGU is "complicit" with human rights violations committed by the Israeli military by offering special programmes to members of the air force and other soldiers. The argument fails on several grounds. First, it could easily lead UJ to discontinue its relationships with some of the greatest universities on earth. Harvard University recently revived a programme with the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps in the US military. Since the US military is not immune from committing human rights violations, it would therefore appear that UJ will need to discontinue its nascent relationship with this august institution. Soon, we are no doubt going to be confronted with relationships with Chinese universities.

The point is that universities all around the world offer special programmes for military personnel and, if this is sufficient to be complicit in human rights violations, then UJ will be seriously limiting its number of potential research partners.

Second , the mere fact of offering a special programme for soldiers in no way renders any university complicit with violations an individual soldier may commit. Special programmes do not in themselves indicate universities sanction immoral conduct of soldiers. Finally, any link must involve a close connection between the research itself and the violation of fundamental rights. It is difficult to see how the UJ-BGU research into the purification of water and development of biofuels can contribute to the human rights of Palestinians being abrogated. Even if we accept the fair point that water is unfairly distributed between Israelis and Palestinians, this research does not contribute to maintaining this status quo and potentially can help reduce competition and conflict over such a vital resource.

But the strongest reason against academic boycotts is the likelihood of their scoring an own goal against fundamental rights. After all, the supposed aim of such a boycott must be to promote human rights in the countries against which the boycott is directed. Yet, that very principle encourages us to reject academic boycotts. Academics and students are often on the progressive side of societies and it is precisely those voices that need to be supported. Contacts between academics can also help to illustrate why certain viewpoints which may be accepted within a society are wholly rejected outside its borders: moral criticism is an important force for change.

It is no coincidence the spate of political protests in dictatorships around North Africa and the Middle East are being driven by educated individuals with external links, and often centre on universities. This is true of Israel as well where many of the strongest critics of human rights violations against Palestinians, continued occupation, illegal settlements and the current reactionary right-wing government hail from academia.

It might be responded that the boycott advocated is one of institutions, not individuals. Yet institutions provide the settings within which individuals can work and large- scale research co-operation is funded. Targeting the relationship between universities will target individuals, many of whom will themselves be opposed to current Israeli policy in relation to the Palestinians.

Moreover, apart from the research benefits of institutional relationships, they also provide the opportunity for promoting fundamental rights in a deeper way: the UJ-BGU relationship, for instance, could be developed to extend beyond scientific research. An exchange of ideas between the respective humanities and law faculties may be fruitful in shifting the university’s policies and helping to examine the relevant aspects of SA’s history that could help chart a better future for Israelis and Palestinians. In what way does cutting off contact help human rights?

Academic boycotts are ultimately a refusal to engage, a severing of connections. Yet, in situations such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, beset by polarities, what is vitally needed is more understanding, engagement, dialogue and support for progressive forces. Academic boycotts are ill-suited to the purpose they purport to achieve. South African academics should reject this blunt tool and focus on promoting fundamental rights in all the relationships they cultivate.

Bilchitz is an associate professor of law at UJ and director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law. He writes in his personal capacity.

Published in : BusinessDay, 2011/03/22

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