To mark the 75th anniversary of the instantiation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Royal Society of Edinburgh held a series of workshops on Thursday 7 December to discuss the various complexities of human rights both here at home and across the world.

Panelists and guests were welcomed to take part in the workshops, under the Chatham House Rule.

Even at a time when the 75th anniversary of the UDHR is being marked, it was explained that there was still a huge gulf between the aspirations of the document and the harsh realities.

Proceedings opened with a stark reminder.

On the morning of the event at the RSE, it was reported that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter in relation to the unfolding situation in Gaza.

Article 99 gives the UN Secretary-General the power to bring to the attention of the UN Security Council “any matter which, in his opinion, may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”.

Human Rights in the UK context

The first workshop – Human Rights in the UK Context – was designed to discuss human rights issues here at home. The audience and panelists were given a brief overview of the public attitudes towards human rights in Scotland and the UK.

The progress of the Scottish Human Rights Bill, which is due to be laid before the Scottish Parliament soon, was discussed. The Bill would strengthen legal provisions for human rights in Scotland.

It was also explained that there has been a proliferation of calls for new public bodies to uphold human rights of various groups in Scotland in recent years, with some 11 proposals outstanding.

The panelists and audience were then given a brief overview of the sense of human rights in the rest of the UK. It was explained that the Human Rights Acts and the European Convention on Human Rights in essence take their lead from the UDHR, but in the UK context these are often “demonised”.

It was explained that there was a tendency to “divorce” universal human rights from the conversation in the UK, and that this trend was a cause for concern.

Additionally, a challenge was set for the audience to volunteer to name each of their 16 own rights – there were no takers.

This illustration raised more questions about how they can be protected, day to day, if the average person does not know what their rights are.

Recent developments with the UK Government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda – now passed in the House of Commons. The plan has been widely criticised.

The disconnect between the letter of the law and the realities that people experience was again highlighted. What do rights mean, and what does justice mean, if we don’t know what our rights are?

Finally in the first session, forced migration and human trafficking were discussed. A hypothesis was put forward that sought to show the differences between the individual human’s rights, and the nation state that they come from that is responsible for upholding them. This gives rise to another question, which is where do people feel they belong?

The panelists and guests were told about some positives that had come out of the European Union’s activation of the Temporary Protection Directive, which afforded Ukrainian refugees rights to move and work in the EU.

It had been feared that the mass movement of Ukrainian refugees would lead to problems of human trafficking and labor or sexual exploitation.

However, as a result of the EU directive, this did not occur in anything like the scale that was feared – because refugees were given rights.

Academic Freedom

The second workshop focused on academic freedom specifically, but in a global context with examples from the United States, Iran and Afghanistan.

Some cases that were emblematic of violations of academic freedom were outlined for the panel and guests. One, a Canadian-Iranian anthropology professor who was arrested and imprisoned in Iran for “dabbling in feminism”. Following an international outcry and the work of several human rights experts, she was finally released.

The panel also heard about several examples of academics being pressured or threatened for questioning received wisdom, or offering counter-narratives, in various situations, not least during the pandemic.

In many cases following an impediment to academic freedom, the panel heard, a domestic and international outcry has led to acquittals and release from prison.

The panel also heard about the changing face of academic freedom in Afghanistan since the turn of the century. The invasion of Afghanistan by coalition forces in 2001 was heard to have precipitated a new kind of academic freedom – especially for women and girls.

However, after 2021 – the year the US officially left Afghanistan – these trends have reversed. Females are now banned from higher education institutions.

Self-censorship is another common thread that permeates the discussion on academic freedom across the world. Academics will censor themselves to avoid a backlash and concerns of losing their jobs.

The panel then heard that the freedom to pursue academic interests was also closely linked to other fundamental human rights like the freedom to associate and the freedom to express oneself. This also led to a discussion on the crossover between freedom of expression and academic freedom, and how these combine – or should be held separately in some cases – when in a classroom setting.

The panel also heard how the distinction between personal and academic thought and expression can be hard to define.

Finally, the panel heard that many were aware of a “chilling effect” on public discourse, with the bandwidth for what topics and opinions are acceptable to discuss narrowing all the time.

Questions from the audience – again under the Chatham House Rule – centred around the dangers of censorship and self-censorship, and the need to secure funding.

It was mentioned that academics had been “rapped on the knuckles” for speaking out about the war in Gaza. Another point raised was that funding for academic institutions is the be-all and end-all, as it in turn decides what is studied.

The panel’s attention was drawn to a recent UN report which highlighted concerns that the space for expressing moderate views and discussing the Israel-Hamas war was extremely restricted. Under the right of Academic Freedom, Religious Freedom and Freedom of Expression, academics have considerable space to speak out about important topics.

During the discussion on self-censorship, the panel also heard that most academics feel free to teach what subjects they want to teach in the UK.

Another concern raised was the necessity of universities to report the movements of international students to the UK immigration department, which the audience member said was reminiscent of a “police state”.

Amongst various comments about the chilling effect and self-censorship, the question was asked if any academics had felt the need to edit their curriculum as a result. One person commented that while they felt “cancel culture” may be overblown, we should all be “genuinely worried” about the idea of altering the teaching of difficult topics so as not to offend.