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People have rights and people have obligations. The obligation, for example, to respect the rights of others and therefore also human rights. Yesterday we commemorated the International Human Rights Day.
Lately these rights and obligations have come to my attention several times. The direct reason for this was the cooperation between the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Chinese Confucius Institute. Was I really aware what we were doing: working with an institution that is controlled by the government of a country which has no respect for human rights? Was I aware of what is happening in China? The Uighurs? The Tibetans? Hong Kong? Tiananmen Square? Were human rights suddenly no longer important to the VUB?
I make no secret of the fact that I have been struggling with this question for a while. To what extent can the breach of human rights be justified for some cooperations, whether of an academic, economic or technological nature? I believe that Europe, which is currently first and foremost an economic project, does not sufficiently defend its values and freedoms. That was also the direct reason why, more than six years ago, I created the annual Difference Day in Bozar, where we organise a whole day of debates and sessions about freedom of the press and freedom of expression. A fundamental human right, which is gradually being eroded. In Europe and elsewhere.
Maybe it is because I am so engaged with human rights that the paradoxes and dilemmas, with which a university on the path of internationalisation is inevitably confronted, are so evident to me, nowadays more than ever.
I was only just elected as rector when we were confronted with the attempted coup and subsequent repression in Turkey. Universities with which we worked together, were suddenly closed down. Colleagues disappeared behind bars. Turkish researchers and students staying at our university often faced a difficult choice: go back or stay here. Turkish academic researchers applied for asylum in our country. Belgian researchers studying Turkey were refused access or stayed away out of self-preservation.
Today, the Turkish government is persecuting one of our students of Turkish origin, for the sake of a few Facebook messages she posted years ago. In anticipation of proceedings she is not allowed to leave the country. So what do you do then? Sever all ties with Turkey in protest or keep the channels open to help people and, where you can, exert influence? After all, there are always allies on the other side of the border…
Another example. In April 2016, our colleague, Ahmadreza Djalali, was arrested during a visit to his beloved home country Iran on suspicion of espionage and sentenced to death following an unfair trial. He is still in prison, at the mercy of the Iranian authorities. He has not yet been executed, but he and his family are faced daily with mortal agony. So what do you do then? Sever all ties with Iran? It would certainly not get him out of jail and you would, in a sense, abandon him. And what about the Iranian students staying here in Belgium, the Iranian researchers with whom some colleagues have enjoyed a good and pleasant cooperation, and have become friends? Are they to blame for their regime? Are they of the same mind? Is it possible that they and their family are also suffering?
The academic world is, due to its nature, internationally oriented. If you are looking for research partners, you are solely guided by how well a person knows his or her field, not by the nationality of that colleague. If you organise courses, you want to attract the best and the most motivated students, and you don’t look at what their identity card says. I agree and fully support this. But you can’t ignore the fact that, nowadays, international cooperation inevitably goes hand in hand with a number of dilemmas.
Man and regime
You can, of course, firmly refuse any cooperation with people and organisations from authoritarian or dictatorial countries. This has the advantage that it is very clear. But I do not believe that this is in the interest of the people in these countries. The VUB has always been a great advocate of academic cooperation across borders. And maybe it is even more important in more difficult countries. Through cooperative research and student exchanges, we encourage the free exchange of ideas and insights. Unburdened by regimes, ideologies and borders. As a free university we support young people with talent, not their leaders. Our priority is the individual students and scientists.
Intercultural dialogue is crucial in this. If we identify people with their regimes, we also drive them straight into the hands of those regimes. We have to give international students and researchers, whatever their nationality, a warm and friendly welcome. A universitas cannot succeed without humanitas. And this intercultural dialogue also teaches us a lot about ourselves. About our own prejudices, our dogmas, our often misplaced sense of superiority. About what makes us as the West so great, and also so small. In short, this type of cooperation makes us all richer, at a scientific and at a human level. Friendships for life are created and scientific milestones are achieved.
But we should, equally, not be naive. Over the past few years, we have found that some cooperations involve risks. Various universities and research institutions in Belgium and abroad have had to deal with forms of industrial espionage. Visiting PhD students work in a top laboratory for a few years, move back home and, with the support of the regime, start a competitive laboratory, without taking into account patents and intellectual property rights.
Or even: visiting researchers learn technologies that are used in their home country for military and police purposes. Or, another example, visiting colleagues or students abuse, whether or not under pressure, academic hospitality to collect information for their security services.
Another dilemma. If we cooperate with people from authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, we hope that such cooperations will also benefit the democratisation process in those countries. That is why we, very consciously, confront our international students and researchers with the values, the trial and error process, of a democratic, critical and open society. So they learn that there are alternatives to authoritarian one-party states or dictatorships. And that they themselves can support those alternatives. Conversely, in that dialogue we also appreciate the freedoms and opportunities we are offered a little more.
But through that international cooperation, these regimes, at least in the short term, are legitimised and possibly strengthened. It helps them to build or modernise their economic infrastructure. And the people trained here, may be tempted with attractive positions by the regime upon their return and therefore resign themselves to the existing relations. And that means that the international cooperation has achieved the opposite of what it had intended.
These are dilemmas which not only universities and knowledge institutions are facing. Recently, a record number of Belgian companies participated in a trade mission to China. Of course, all these companies hope to conclude good contracts which will result in employment and economic growth in our country. But in some cases, this cooperation may, in the longer term, also be harmful for us, if it turns out that we have strengthened the regime and have given it technologies which they will subsequently use to compete with our companies.
International and geopolitical conditions change at a fast pace. The belief that the world will become freer and more democratic through internationalisation, through the opening up of the markets, through the freedom of movement of goods and persons, has disappeared. Have we been naive or gullible? No: internationalisation, the free exchange of ideas and insights, of dialogue remains essential. To isolate oneself is never good. As Jean Monnet wrote: it is always better for countries to trade with each other rather than fight. Though, we must add, that reciprocity and the pursuit of a balance of power is essential. Power does strange things to people, and to regimes.
I am also convinced that, nowadays, international cooperation assumes a greater geopolitical awareness. You can’t automatically expect a scientific expert, whether he or she is a brilliant biologist, an enterprising engineer, a philosopher, a doctor or a communication scientist, to also be completely aware at all times of the political developments in the countries with which they want to cooperate. It is a task of the international relations department and the political scientists of our universities to support them in that. Rightly so, the Flemish Interuniversity Council (Vlaamse Interuniversitaire Raad, VLIR) has drawn up a charter for human rights. All of us, collectively and individually, need guidelines and appropriate vigilance reflexes, without letting suspicion rule; because you would never build good and sustainable human relationships.
Even so, we as a university need a body, composed of people with very different areas of expertise, which concretely assesses international cooperations against, among other things, human rights. For this reason the VUB founded an ethical reflection group which must advise us and with which we can ‘spar’ about ethics. We have to consider and continue to critically evaluate every opportunity to exchange students, researchers and scientific knowledge. An exchange across borders is only an option if there are clear boundaries. Proportionality, reciprocity, transparency and integrity must lead us. Always. Free and independent research must always remain possible. Not as a marketing tool, but as a daily methodology and commitment.
And what does all that really mean for our cooperation with the Confucius Institute? We continue to consider the cooperation and exchange with China as extremely important to us, but we don’t have to accommodate a Confucius Institute on our campus. The contract will expire mid 2020. Based on a well-founded file, our board of directors has decided, in consultation and with an eye for our values, not to renew the current contract. I am convinced that there are better ways to continue our cooperation with Chinese students and researchers. And this with complete respect for the beauty of our own and other cultures.