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Press releases Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

United States of America: UN Human Rights Chief troubled by law enforcement actions against protesters at universities

30 April 2024

Protesters block police vehicles from leaving the University of Texas at Austin on Monday, April 29, 2024. © USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk on Tuesday said he was troubled by a series of heavy-handed steps taken to disperse and dismantle protests across university campuses in the United States of America.

“Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are fundamental to society – particularly when there is sharp disagreement on major issues, as there are in relation to the conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel,” said Türk.

In recent weeks, thousands of US university students have been protesting against the war in Gaza. Large-scale demonstrations have also taken place on campuses in other countries in recent days. Many of the protests have been held without incident, and continue. At a number of locations, however, protests have been dispersed or dismantled by security forces. Hundreds of students have been arrested. Many have subsequently been released, while others still face charges or academic sanctions.

Actions taken by university authorities and law enforcement officials to restrict such expression need to be carefully scrutinised, to ensure such measures go no further than what is demonstrably necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others, or for another legitimate aim such as maintenance of public health or order, Türk said.

“I am concerned that some of law enforcement actions across a series of universities appear disproportionate in their impacts,” he added.

Türk emphasised that antisemitic conduct and speech, were totally unacceptable and deeply disturbing. Anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian conduct and speech were equally reprehensible, he said.

“Incitement to violence or hatred on grounds of identity or viewpoints – whether real or assumed - must be strongly repudiated,” he said. “We have already seen such dangerous rhetoric can quickly lead to real violence.”

“Such conduct can, and must be, addressed individually, rather than through sweeping measures that impute to all members of a protest the unacceptable viewpoints of a few. Here, as elsewhere, responses by universities and law enforcement need to be guided by human rights law, allowing vibrant debate and protecting safe spaces for all.”

The High Commissioner stressed that any restrictions to freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly must be strictly guided by the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality. These standards must also be applied without discrimination, he added.

“US universities have a strong, historic tradition of student activism, strident debate and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Türk said. “It must be clear that legitimate exercises of the freedom of expression cannot be conflated with incitement to violence and hatred.”

For more information and media requests, please contact:

In Geneva
Ravina Shamdasani + 41 22 917 9169 / [email protected]
Jeremy Laurence +41 22 917 9383 / [email protected]
Marta Hurtado + 41 22 917 9466 / [email protected]

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