Human Rights and Academic Freedom

Cambridge has helped generations of scholars who were displaced by persecution but were to be the mainspring of the rebuilding of their countries once return was possible. More recently, the Cambridge Colleges Hospitality Scheme has welcomed Iraqi Visiting Scholars each year – highlighting their bravery in the face of death threats and their determination to go back and rebuild their country. Cambridge’s notable tradition of assisting refugee academics and scholars at risk is a matter of pride but must serve as a foundation for continued and expanded efforts. This seminar, hosted by the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (POLIS), in coordination with CARA and CRASSH, sought to renew and redouble efforts within the University to support refugee academics and scholars at risk today and in the future.

CARA has assisted refugee academics in the UK for over 75 years, and Cambridge has been involved with CARA from the outset through the efforts of the likes of Lord Rutherford, John Maynard Keynes, Professor AV Hill and Sir William Bragg. Many refugees, helped by CARA, settled in Cambridge, such as Nobel Prize winning scientists Max Born, Hans Krebs and Max Perutz.

Event report

The roundtable discussion on “Scholars at Risk” hosted by CG+HR in association with CARA and CRASSH attracted a large audience and brought home the difficult realities faced by many academics around the world. Ms Leila Alikarami, an Iranian lawyer currently doing her PhD at SOAS, spoke eloquently about the impossibility of researching and publishing scholarly work under a regime with severe censorship laws based on Shariah ideologies, including a ban on works advocating women’s rights. Her descriptions of police brutality within student halls of residence and university buildings were shocking but also evoked the strength of academic resistance to government interference, and emphasised the need for international support in this struggle.

Mr Gladson Chikwa, formerly a University Lecturer in Zimbabwe had similar stories of the oppression, torture, abduction and killing of scholars who were perceived as being critical of the government, even following the recent positive developments in Zimbabwe. As a former teacher and lecturer, his despair at having to self-censor in order to appease government spies, and his worry that such self-censored teaching produced ‘half-baked’ students unable to critically analyse things offered an insight into the effects government oppression has beyond the publishing of academic journals and books. Ms Mina Al-Lami offered an insight into the difficulties faced by academics in the chaos that consumed Iraq during 2003-2007, and her appraisal of the difference between the known enemy of the Baathist regime and the more unpredictable enemies of the many extremist groups in Iraq following the war demonstrated that merely toppling a dictatorship does not end threats to academics. In particular her description of teaching students who themselves are part of radical groups, and the problematic power relations inherent within this situation, showed how the collapse of the state affects every level of academic life.
The audience question and answer session, chaired by Sir Martin Harris (President, Clare Hall; CARA Council of Management), encompassed topics ranging from the uncertainty faced by academics in the UK researching Islamic fundamentalist websites due to new anti-terrorism laws, to more personal experiences of constraints on academic freedom, to the possibility of using legal systems to increase academics’ rights; and was an interesting and timely opportunity to discuss what is sadly still a common experience within the global academic community. 

Thanks to Nadia Kevlin for contributing this report.

To watch a video of the lecture please click here

About the speakers

Ms Leila Alikarami

An Iranian lawyer, Ms Alikarami was a member of the education committee of the One Million Signature Campaign (2006-2008), provided legal and advocacy work against child execution in Iran as a member of the society for Protecting the Rights of the Child (2002-2006), and has worked on defence of cases involving writers, journalists, politicians, and women activists as a member of the Centre for Defenders of Human Rights in collaboration with Nobel Prize winner Dr. Shirin Ebadi.

Ms Mina Al-Lami

An Iraqi Visiting Fellow at the Dept. of Media and Communications under the LSE Scholars at Risk scheme. For the last two years, Mina has been involved in research on Islamic extremist groups. Her research focus is the media and propaganda of jihadist groups, online radicalisation, and counter-extremism measures. Prior to that, she served as security information analyst with the United Nations and lecturer of English language at Baghdad University, both in Iraq. Mina fled Iraq to Jordan, along with her family, in 2006 following a series of serious death threats.

Mr Gladson Chikwa

A lecturer in the Faculty of Reproductive Health and Family Sciences at Women's University in Africa in Harare, Zimbabwe. As secretary general of the University union, he advocated staff rights and became unpopular with the University authorities (who had strong links with the ruling party officials). Gladson was also forced to self-censure his lectures when he came to know of intelligence officers masquerading as students in his classes. Gladson decided to take flight, and won a scholarship to study in Spain, before arriving in the UK where he is pursuing a PhD at the University of Sheffield on the introduction and use of new technologies in science education.