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USA: university administrations condemned over heavy-handed Gaza protests response

‘As could easily be foreseen, the decisions at some universities to call in law enforcement actually escalated the situation - Paul O’Brien

Amnesty International has condemned the obstructive and repressive responses by university administrations and the police crackdown on largely peaceful protests against Israel's brutal war on Gaza in and around US university campuses across the country.

Amnesty is reminding university administrators that they should summon law-enforcement officials to disperse campus demonstrations only as a last resort, such as in the face of widespread violence or incitement to violence and discrimination.

Not only did university administrations place students and staff at known risk of police violence by having law enforcement disperse and arrest non-violent protesters, but they also failed to implement appropriate measures to keep protesters safe from violence by third parties, such as at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Police are required to act in accordance with international human rights standards to facilitate the right to peaceful protest, with the authorities ensuring that any decision to disperse an assembly is taken only as a last resort and strictly in line with the principles of necessity and proportionality.

Journalists and legal observers have a right to attend and report on peaceful assemblies, and law-enforcement officials have a responsibility not to prevent or obstruct their work. Importantly, the police must not intervene aggressively and disperse a demonstration simply in response to the actions of a small number of people.

Paul O’Brien, Amnesty International USA’s Executive Director, said:

“We urge university administrations to safeguard and facilitate the right of students to peacefully and safely protest or counter protest on their campuses.

“As could easily be foreseen, the decisions at some universities to call in law enforcement actually escalated the situation and exposed their students and faculty staff to the risk of violence.

“While a few universities agreed to dialogue with protesters and put their concerns up for a vote, many college administrations called in law enforcement, which then resorted to violent means - including physical force, use of concussion devices or 'flash bangs’, kinetic impact projectiles (such as rubber bullets), and chemical irritants (such as tear gas and pepper spray) - against largely peaceful demonstrations. 

“Worse yet, the NYPD specifically prevented media - including student journalists - legal observers and street medics from performing their role in directly observing these actions, threatening them with arrest if they did not leave the area.

“Columbia University and the City College of New York teach their students in classes the universal value of international law and that peaceful protest is a human right, so it’s truly shocking to see them turn around and trample all over those rights.

“Universities should be protecting their students’ rights and working to resolve the demonstrations peacefully, rather than subject their students to the risk of police violence from units such as the Strategic Response Group of the NYPD.

“We at Amnesty International USA condemn hateful rhetoric and violence against Jewish or Palestinian communities in the strongest possible terms, including when done under the guise of protest. Those are also human rights violations.

“Administrations have a responsibility to address the documented incidents of antisemitic hate and discrimination by individual protesters, as well as violence, anti-Arab and Islamophobic hate from counter-protesters whenever they occur.

“However, the actions of the few should not be used to characterise the protests generally, be used as a pretext to shut down legitimate and peaceful dissent, or as a justification to violate the right of students to peacefully assemble.”

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