Academic freedom just as crucial as a free press or independent judiciary, says Special Rapporteur


GENEVA (24 June 2024) – In every region of the world, people exercising their academic freedom face repression, whether through direct and violent or more subtle methods, an independent expert warned today.

In her report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Farida Shaheed, said restrictions aimed to control public opinion undermine free thinking and limit academic and scientific debate.

“We must take this seriously as these attacks threaten both our democracies and our capacities to collectively respond to crises humanity currently faces,” Shaheed said.

“Academic freedom must be understood and respected for its role for our societies, which is as crucial as a free press or an independent judiciary.”

The Special Rapporteur said academic freedom carries special duties to seek truth and impart information according to ethical and professional standards, and to respond to contemporary problems and needs of all members of society. “Therefore, we must not politicise its exercise,” she said.

“A multitude of actors are involved in the restrictions, from Governments to religious or political groups or figures, paramilitary and armed groups, terrorist groups, narco-traffickers, corporate entities, philanthropists, influencers, but also sometimes the educational institutions themselves as well as school boards, staff and students, and parents’ associations.”

Shaheed said that institutional autonomy is crucial for ensuring academic freedom; however, academic, research and teaching institutions also must respect it.

“Institutions must respect the freedom of expression on campus according to international standards and carry a specific responsibility to promote debate around controversies that may arise on campus following academic standards.”

Referring to student protests on the Gaza crisis that occurred in a number of countries, Shaheed said she remained deeply troubled by the violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, arrests, detentions, police violence, surveillance and disciplinary measures and sanctions against members of the educational community exercising their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

Shaheed called for endorsement and implementation of Principles for Implementing the Right to Academic Freedom, drafted by a working group of United Nations experts, scholars, and civil society actors, based on and reflecting the status of international law and practice. “I believe implementing these Principles would allow a better state of academic freedom worldwide,” she said.

Ms Farida Shaheed took office as Special Rapporteur on the right to education on 1 August 2022 following her appointment by the Human Rights Council. She is the Executive Director of Pakistan’s leading gender justice organization, Shirkat Gah – Women’s Resource Centre. She is also an independent expert/consultant to numerous UN, international and bilateral development agencies, the government of Pakistan, as well as civil society initiatives, and serves on multiple international and national advisory committees. She served as a member of Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women, and as the first Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights from 2009 to 2015.

The 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 organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

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