University or business? Yale’s Singapore partnership violates human rights

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Yale university’s decision to set up a liberal arts college at the National University of Singapore (NUS) while accepting Singapore’s restrictions on students’ rights to free speech and freedom of association is outrageous.

Human rights organisations are rightly concerned. One group said in a statement that Yale is “betraying the spirit of the university as a centre of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students at its new Singapore campus.”

The partnership is another reminder that universities are now primarily profit-run, often multi-national businesses that will fully exploit the opportunities offered by globalisation with less thought for the needs of their students.

And it may not only be students whose rights are curtailed – imagine being a teaching academic whose lectures could be deemed unacceptable, or even illegal, at any time.

In this venture, Yale may well be violating international human rights conventions. The university needs to stop and look at the risks involved in such a partnership, as well as the message it sends to students, academics and society at large.

A university’s code

Most commentators would agree that the role and contributions of a university relate to breakthrough innovations and creative impulses, nurtured on a balanced diet of existing knowledge and unfettered explorations. A university venture accepting restrictions in speech and association fundamentally contradicts this aim. And in the context of creating a liberal arts college, it is nothing short of ludicrous: Liberal? Arts? Hello!

But if universities are going to act primarily as businesses they still need to consider their obligations. The UN’s Guiding Principles (GPs) on Business and Human Rights sets out the business risks of human rights violations.

The GPs refer to internationally recognised human rights, such as those expressed in the International Bill of Human Rights and the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Business and human rights

But despite these GPs, business (and indeed many governments) are lagging behind on human rights. Current and past business activity has resulted in many human rights abuses with damaging effects on the environment and the well-being of individuals and communities. You only have to think of high-profile cases involving Union Carbide or James Hardie to be reminded of this.

Just because a business goes overseas, for example, does not mean it should not act according to the GPs. In fact, they were designed in the first place to deal with the governance challenges caused by globalisation. The GPs state that governments have a duty to protect the human rights of their state’s citizens; that business has a responsibility to respect human rights in conducting their business activities; and that both states and business must put in place appropriate and effective mechanisms to remedy human rights abuses within their territories and jurisdictions.

Rights and responsibilities

With an unimpressive human rights scorecard, Singapore has long been in the sights of human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International. Despite public condemnation, states of course enjoy their own sovereignty so Singapore pretty much does as it pleases.

However, the GPs “apply to all states” which are required to “take appropriate steps to investigate, punish and redress business-related human rights abuses when they occur”.

In the case of the Yale-NUS partnership, the government’s restrictions amount to human rights abuse. And for Yale too (the business in this case) the international GPs are clear: they should avoid “causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts” and seek “to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships”.

According to these parameters, Yale is not properly discharging their responsibility to respect human rights. Clear and simple.

Legal consequences

The GPs provide examples of existing “remedies” including legislative and non-legislative mechanisms to achieve this requirement. The United States-based 1789 “Alien Torts Statute” (ATS), has long been used extra-territorially to claim redress for the human rights violations of both US and non-US citizens.

According to the GPs and former applications of the ATS, Yale University could find itself in US courts for undertaking a collaboration with human rights restrictions.

If universities are going to do business, they’d better do it right. Media reports on the Yale-NUS partnership suggest that this collaboration was undertaken with full awareness of the issues for their students and staff.

In the process of normal business, due diligence should be conducted to identify and assess key business risks. But in this instance the legal risks and human rights risks have been totally ignored. This could be a costly mistake for Yale-NUS, both for their dollar bottom line and for their reputation.

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