Ghent University’s Human Rights Policy

Vision

In its mission statement, Ghent University identifies itself as a socially committed university. This implies that the institution reflects about the positive impact that its activities can have upon society, and that it attempts to optimize that impact. It also implies the reflection about the potential negative impact of activities upon society, and the attempt of minimizing such impact.
Since the international dimension is also part of Ghent University’s self-affirmed identity, as is also pointed out by the mission statement, any reflection about societal impact cannot be limited to Flanders or Belgium, but should include the broader impact in the world at large.

The need for Ghent University to engage in a human rights policy is moreover based on its status as a public actor. By delivering higher education with a considerable public good component, Ghent University is embedded in the wider public sector and is expected to engage in promoting public service values. In addition, Ghent University’s human rights policy is inspired by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. If businesses are expected to abide by human rights standards, this is a fortiori the case for universities, on account of their eminently social role.

Dimensions

Ghent University’s human rights policy includes a positive dimension, aimed at optimizing the positive impact that the activities of Ghent University and its members can have, and a negative dimension, aimed at minimizing any negative human rights impact from Ghent University activities. Both dimensions are interdependent.

Positive dimension

The positive commitment of Ghent University for human rights, includes both activities that promote respect for human rights (the discourse) and activities that advance human rights on the ground (the action). In each category there are a number of on-going activities [insert link to overview of activities, including a call to report on any activities missing in the list, as well as a link to a call for proposals should funding become available ].

Negative dimension

  • Ghent University aims to avoid directly or indirectly contributing to or facilitating violations
  • of human rights
  • Ghent University aims to avoid benefiting or profiting from human rights violations
  • Ghent University commits to denouncing any human rights violation encountered in the
  • course of its international activities

Human Rights Impact Assessments

In order to enable Ghent University to avoid any potential negative human rights impact, a human rights impact assessment is incorporated into the process preceding the entering into an international cooperation. This should be understood in a broad sense, encompassing international cooperation entered into by the university, the faculties, research groups or individual researchers, and including bilateral as well as multilateral cooperation.

In the course of a human rights impact assessment, the (candidate-)promoter at Ghent University verifies the human rights impact of activities undertaken in the context of such cooperation. The questions to be answered are:

  • What is the risk that the activities undertaken in the context of the cooperation agreement could directly or indirectly contribute to the violation of one of the rights guaranteed in any of the Core International Human Rights Instruments?
  • Is the partner institution or organisation implicated in serious or systematic violations of human rights?

In order to avoid also beneficial complicity and silent complicity, problematic collaborations include not only those that themselves have (direct or indirect) negative human rights impact, but also those that do not have such impact, yet involve a very problematic partner. In the latter case, however, the standard is much higher: serious or systematic violations, instead of any human rights violation. Examples of such violations include discriminatory or segregationist entrance or hiring policies, and exploitative labour conditions.

Candidate-promoters can turn to the Committee for the Human Rights Policy in Internationalisation for advice on the human rights impact assessment for their planned international cooperation/project. A set of risk factors provides guidance. For more information please consult [insert link to page with detail on Human Rights Impact Assessment, with the Checklist for Impact Assessment

Ghent University makes the deliberate choice not to exclude cooperation based on criteria relating to the country in which a partner is based. However, this is not intended to preclude Ghent University from deciding at any point in the future to join an academic boycott against a particular country.

In some countries, certain human rights violations result directly from the legal framework. In such situations, Ghent University does not expect its partners to be dissidents or to defy the law. The current framework does not hold partners accountable for simply applying a problematic law. However, partners who strongly identify with a state policy that violates human rights and who promote and apply it beyond what the law requires, will be held accountable under this policy.

By way of principle, no cooperation should exist with any partner institution that is implicated in gross or systematic violations of human rights. Moreover, Ghent University should be transparent about the human rights-based reasons for the refusal to cooperate. Communicating these reasons (in the first place to the rejected partner, but potentially more broadly) is in itself a way of promoting respect for human rights.

Aside of that scenario, if the human rights impact assessment indicates that there may potentially be a negative human rights impact, steps are taken in order to avoid causing or contributing to a negative human rights impact, or in order to mitigate the risk of a negative human rights impact. If no such mitigation measures are possible, Ghent University must refrain from entering into such cooperation. In this scenario as well, it is suggested that it would be appropriate for Ghent University to be transparent about this in its communication.

Negotiations concerning a cooperation agreement provide a window of opportunity to enter into a dialogue with a potential partner institution in order to discuss its negative human rights impact and to agree upon preventive or mitigating measures in order to address the potentially negative human rights impact arising from the activities undertaken in the context of the cooperation agreement. In such case, the Committee for the Human Rights Policy in Internationalisation is ideally placed to provide advice on the proposed preventive or mitigating measures.

Human Rights Clause

All international cooperation agreements for which Ghent University is in a position to negotiate the terms of the agreement, must contain a human rights clause, which enables Ghent University to terminate the cooperation agreement in case of clear indications that the partner institution is involved in any serious violation of human rights. The human rights clause allows the University to respond to serious violations of human rights by the partner institution that it did not know of beforehand or that only arose after entering into the cooperation. The clause will only be applied as a measure of last resort, after entering in a dialogue with the partner institution.

The clause: “This agreement may be terminated by any of the parties in case of clear and convincing evidence that the counterparty is involved in a serious violation of human rights. The party wishing to terminate the agreement will give notice of this intention to the counterparty, by means of a registered letter allowing the counterparty due time to respond to the allegations. In the absence of a satisfactory reply or in the absence of a reply in due time, the party that wishes to terminate the agreement will reiterate its intention of doing so, by means of a second registered letter. The agreement will cease to have any effects between the parties from the moment that such second notice is given.”

“A serious violation of human rights” is a category that can encompass many situations, including isolated but serious incidents. Some examples are:

  • Law enforcement troops, using excessive force, crack down on a student protest, on request of the partner institution.
  • A staff member of the university is dismissed on account of his/her criticism of government policy.
  • Collaboration in a research project including the building/installation of a new facility (lab, fields…) for the purpose of which people have been forcibly evicted from their home in violation of international human rights (e.g. without compensation)

The human rights clause contains the standard of proof of “clear and convincing evidence”. This standard is higher than the “more likely than not” preponderance of evidence standard, but lower than the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard applied in criminal law. The “clear and convincing evidence” standard is sufficiently high to avoid whimsical termination of the agreement, but not as high as to deter this standard from ever being invoked.

The clause is framed in a reciprocal manner, in order to make clear that Ghent University is also willing to be held accountable, and contains some procedural safeguards in order to avoid whimsical termination of the agreement and to enable dialogue.

Committee for the Human Rights Policy in Internationalisation

In order to embed the Human Rights Policy into the governing structures of Ghent University and provide guidance to its community, a Committee for the Human Rights Policy in Internationalization was established. Its composition is representative of the entire Ghent University community, while also containing expertise on human rights issues. The Committee has the following competences:

  • To advise the university leadership on institutional public positions related to human rights in internationalisation.
  • To formulate expert opinions on the ‘human rights impact assessments’.
  • To formulate guidelines for staff indicating for which types of cooperation the ‘human rights impact assessment’ is needed.
  • To invoke the Human Rights Clause in international agreements.
  • To develop and provide follow-up to the positive dimension of the University’s Human Rights policy.

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