Statement by 44 teachers of International Law and Human Rights

'Riot police intervention at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment was unnecessary and disproportionate'

Drift protest gaza foto james Huang
Protest at Drift. Photo James Huang

As teachers of international law and human rights, we deplore the University Executive Board's decision to request that the riot police remove peaceful protesters, the lack of detailed reasons for such course of action, and the subsequent use of violence by the police. Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are the foundations of a democratic society. In light of the crucial role of the University as a cornerstone of an open and pluralistic society, we are disturbed by the Executive Board's choice to have recourse to the police to disperse peaceful protesters. This decision undermines the relationship of mutual trust and respect that should exist within our community and breaches the University's duty of care towards its students and staff. The University's course of action also highlights the inconsistencies of the UU House Rules, and their interpretation and application, with human rights standards.

As teachers of international law and human rights, we teach our students to understand and apply international law with a focus on human rights, international crimes and the law of war. We equip our students with critical thinking skills, we encourage them to voice their opinions and disagreements, and we instill in them the importance of universal respect for human rights. In an instance where the highest institutions and guardians of international law are indicating that there is currently a grave risk of genocide in Gaza, in addition to other violations of international law on a massive scale, we see it as no surprise that our students and fellow faculty members decide to protest in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Although we may not all agree about the substance of the protesters’ demands, we support their right to voice their opinion freely and to protest peacefully.  

We believe that, in its response to the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on 7 and 8 May, Utrecht University regrettably failed to uphold and facilitate the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of its students and staff. These rights must be protected also when these demonstrations can be perceived as shocking or disturbing. As the UN Human Rights Committee articulated, “peaceful assemblies can in some cases be inherently or deliberately disruptive and require a significant degree of toleration". According to the European Court of Human Rights, even when individual protesters have recourse to violence, this does not imply the whole demonstration is not peaceful, and authorities still have a duty not to resort to force against other peaceful demonstrators and to respect their right to protest. Under human rights law, some forms of temporary occupation of premises are considered to fall under the freedom of assembly and the use of face coverings during protests also does not detract from the peaceful character of a protest. Any measures adopted in response must remain proportional. Regrettably, both the UU House Rules and the recently adopted Joint Guidelines of Universities of the Netherlands and Universities of Applied Sciences Netherlands continue to fall short of certain human rights standards.

We are gravely concerned by reports from colleagues, students and parents that the police used batons, pepper spray and chokeholds against peaceful protesters, who were then loaded onto buses and dropped off several kilometers away in the middle of the night. Based upon the available information, we believe that this interference with their right to freedom of assembly was unnecessary and disproportionate. We regret that, by invoking safety concerns, the University directly put the safety and well-being of students and staff at grave risk. There is simply no room for riot police on the campus of a university where its students and staff exercise their right to peaceful assembly, and where dialogue and the expression of a plurality of views should always be possible without recourse to violence.

We welcome the Executive Board’s willingness to engage with some of the demands of the protesters, and to review the incidents with the riot police. In light of this, we as teachers of international law and human rights, request the Executive Board to take the following further steps: 

  • In order to repair the breach of trust, publicly communicate an apology to all students and staff who were affected by the choice to ask the police to terminate the Gaza Solidarity Encampment; 
  • Provide more information to the UU community regarding the handling of the demonstrations on 7-8 May;
  • Guarantee that in the future the police will not be called again to disperse peaceful protests on campus; 
  • Guarantee that in the future the UU House Rules and the Joint Guidelines of Universities of the Netherlands and Universities of Applied Sciences Netherlands for protests will be applied in conformity with human rights law, in order to facilitate, rather than interfere with, the exercise of basic rights in a democratic and pluralistic society; 
  • Include human rights experts when dealing with demonstrations involving UU students and staff; and
  • Meaningful engagement by the Executive Board with the requests of protesters. 

We are ready to provide a more elaborate version of our own tentative legal analysis, on the basis of human rights law, of the University’s responses to 7-8 May demonstrations, of the UU House Rules and of the Joint Guidelines.

This statement is signed by 44 UU lecturers/researchers of international and European law