Silence after the storm

‘Human rights assessment useful tool to evaluate collaboration’

5 min
Text Peter De Meyer
Image Davien Dierickx

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not leave Flemish universities unaffected. For one thing, activists want them to stop collaborating with Israelian educational institutions. Stroom is looking at the big picture: what criteria does UAntwerp apply in evaluating international collaborations? Is cutting one’s ties with an institution abroad a good thing? ‘What’s essential is that we always look at the foreign university in its own right, never at the country’s regime.’ 

In short


  • If any alarm bells go off, the Ethical Committee on Misuse, Human Rights & Security is alerted.
  • The human rights assessment is a good tool for the Committee.
  • It’s essential that we always look at the foreign university in its own right, never at the country’s regime.

Students go on exchange to all corners of the world, scientists work closely together with colleagues from all around the globe. Internationalisation is inextricably linked to higher education, which is a good thing. But now and then, we must exercise caution: can a university send students to a country that’s not that big on human rights? Can a scientist collaborate with a foreign researcher if the latter is employed by a university that’s also working for an army that violates human rights? 


Europe decided for us in the case of four countries; European universities cannot work together with institutions in Iran, North Korea, Russia and Belarus. Maintaining contacts with individual scientists from those countries is still allowed. ‘If they forbid that as well, it will pull away the safety net for well-meaning foreign scientists,’ says Sarah Claes. 


She is a policy advisor on ethics and human rights at Research, Innovation & Valorisation Antwerp. In this capacity, she coordinates the contact point for human rights at UAntwerp. Files are submitted to a committee, which consists of 25 members from all ambits of the university. An important responsibility of this committee is to scrutinise the University of Antwerp’s international partnerships. 


Alarm bells go off 


We have a pioneering role,’ Claes explains. ‘Under the auspices of the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR), the human rights assessment was elaborated in 2019. Previously not a lot had been done in that respect, including in other countries. When researchers or professors want to start collaborating with a university abroad, they must first analyse and critically reflect on their potential partners. Is the partner university involved in the violation of human rights? Can the joint project lead to human rights violations?’ 

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At a conference in China I noticed that a lot of Chinese colleagues are fairly critical of the state, even though they don’t dare to say so in public.

Wouter Vandenhole

If any alarm bells go off, the Ethical Committee on Misuse, Human Rights & Security is alerted. ‘This committee looks at the matter from all angles, for example data security, possible military applications of technology and funding channels. Investigating those aspects is of course rather complex. We don’t aspire – or have the capacity – to do what State Security does. On occasion we do discuss things with them.’  


Many files don’t relate to one-on-one collaboration between UAntwerp and a foreign university. It often concerns big international consortiums, with our university as one of the many partners. Claes: ‘That makes everything much more complex still. Can we be the only partner to withdraw from such a consortium? What impact will this have on future collaborations with multiple partners? In such cases, strategic and economic interests are also at stake.’ 


The Human Rights Commission in no way wants to be a brake on the development of international partnerships, but to work with researchers to see how risks can be mitigated and what alternatives exist. 


A useful tool 

What’s very important is that the human rights assessment looks at the specific university or company with which the collaboration would be established, not at the specific partner’s country or the regime in that country. ‘If we did evaluate collaborations at the country level, there would be a great many countries we would have to reject,’ says UAntwerp Rector Herman Van Goethem. Take China and the Uyghurs, take the hundreds of thousands of victims in the horrendous conflicts in Ethiopia and eastern Congo.’ 

Wouter Vandenhole, professor at the Faculty of Law, has spent many years researching human and children’s rights. He says the human rights assessment is a useful tool. ‘The assessment is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That set of standards, which has existed for 75 years now, has proven its use. The assessment is currently rather limited: we check if the partner is engaging in serious and/or systematic human rights violations. In future, the assessment will be expanded. Europe will force large companies to take this aspect into account. Mind you, this doesn’t only apply to human rights: a due diligence impact assessment of partners will also have to be made when it comes to sustainability.’ 

General boycott 


Vandenhole thinks it’s justifiable for Europe to prohibit collaborations with institutions from four specific countries. ‘Sometimes there are calls for a general boycott of a country, such as now with Israel. In the past this also happened with South Africa, because of the apartheid regime. In my opinion, we have to be careful in this respect. A boycott can damage or even destroy the internal dynamics of resistance at foreign universities. At a conference in China, for example, I noticed that a lot of Chinese colleagues are fairly critical of the state, even though they don’t dare to say so in public.’ 


The human rights expert thinks it’s very important to talk to the international partners in case of potential problems. ‘As a university, we have to be able to make a judgement based on correct information. In cases like these, fact finding is never a matter of course. That’s why it’s of the utmost importance to ask for a response, allowing the partner to explain certain matters.’  

Occupation Stadscampus

On Monday 13 May 2024 the group “UAntwerp for Palestine” started the occupation of the Agora on Stadscampus of the University of Antwerp. This action is a response to the violence currently happening in Gaza. More practical information can be found on the website of UAntwerp.


As a transparent and open university, UAntwerp wishes to communicate about its activities in a clear fashion. At the request of staff and students, as well as the media and peace organisations, we have drafted the list of all our ongoing collaborations with universities and other organisations in Israel.

You can find the list of collaborations here

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