Growing global opposition to breach of academic freedom

The International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies, which has 80 member organisations across the world, has issued a statement demanding that the Turkish government “desist from threatening academics”. The statement is supported by 28* Nobel Prize laureates.

Separately, a coalition of 20 higher education networks and associations from around the world, co-ordinated by Scholars at Risk, have issued a joint public letter expressing grave concern over recent reports of widespread pressures on members of Turkey’s higher education and research community.

The statements reflect deep international concern over reports that Turkish federal prosecutors have placed under investigation approximately 1,128 academics from 89 universities in apparent retaliation for their co-signing a public petition criticising military operations against Kurdish rebels in the south-east of the country and urging Turkish authorities to renew dialogue with factions to build a lasting peace, as reported in University World News.

The International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies issued a statement voicing alarm at the “increasingly repressive and inflammatory reaction by Turkish government leaders, many university officials, and other intolerant individuals toward hundreds of our Turkish colleagues, solely because they publicly expressed humanitarian concerns about the grave crisis in south-eastern Turkey”.

The network urged the government of Turkey to protect the rights of its citizens and “desist from threatening academics who are performing their civic duties by participating in governance”.

It said: “Surely, citizens of a democratic country such as Turkey, and its academics in particular, have a civic duty to remind their government, when deemed necessary, of its obligation to respect Turkey’s constitution, adhere to humanitarian standards for all of its citizens, and give priority to peaceful solutions in crisis situations.”

Separately, the coalition’s letter notes that some of the Turkish scholars have already been investigated for and-or charged with criminal offences including spreading “terrorist propaganda”, “inciting people to hatred, violence and breaking the law”, and “insulting Turkish institutions and the Turkish Republic”.

The academics being investigated could reportedly face between one and five years in prison if convicted.

Dozens of scholars have reportedly already been detained and interrogated, and suspended or forced to resign from their positions at Turkish higher education institutions.

“Actions reportedly taken against these scholars raise serious concerns not only for [the scholars’] professional and personal well-being, but for the overall well-being of the Turkish higher education and research community, and for the ability of intellectuals and institutions in Turkey to undertake world-class scholarship,” the letter states.

The coalition signatory organisations are:
  • • Academic Cooperation Association;
  • • American Political Science Association;
  • • Association of International Education Administrators;
  • • Canadian Association of University Teachers;
  • • Committee of Concerned Scientists;
  • • Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland;
  • • European Association for International Education;
  • • European University Association;
  • • Foundation for Refugee Students;
  • • HRK German Rectors’ Conference;
  • • International Council for Science’s Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the conduct of Science;
  • • Magna Charta Observatory;
  • • Mexican Association of International Education;
  • • Middle East Studies Association;
  • • National Tertiary Education Union, Australia;
  • • Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund;
  • • Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences;
  • • Scholars at Risk Network;
  • • Scholars at Risk Norway Section; and
  • • The New Zealand Tertiary Education Union.
They call on Turkish authorities to intervene before any further harm is done to the scholars, their institutions, and to the reputation of Turkey’s higher education and research sector.

“All of our organisations work with institutions and individuals from or within Turkey,” said Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk. “We deeply value these mutually beneficial ties, and therefore felt it was important to show clear international solidarity with colleagues in the Turkish higher education and research sector in the face of this unprecedented threat.”


The signatories warn that the facts as reported suggest a “serious and widespread effort to retaliate against scholars for the non-violent, public expression of their views on matters of professional and public concern – conduct expressly protected by internationally recognised standards of academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association articulated in, among others the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Turkey is a signatory”.

They hope that the letter will encourage Turkish officials to end any pending legal, administrative or professional actions undertaken against the scholars concerned and to renew publicly their commitment to internationally recognised principles of academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

The European University Association, the main voice of the higher education community in Europe, also issued its own statement expressing its concern for the academics being investigated for expressing their views in the petition.

The statement said: “Irrespective of the content of the petition, freedom of expression is a core university value and a sine qua non of democratic societies. We therefore urge the government of Turkey to fully respect the right to express any opinion in public without censorship or restraint as well as the Higher Education Council, YÖK, to withdraw its request to the rectors to open up an inquiry on the signatories.”

University heads in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have expressed their “deep concern” over Turkey’s treatment of academics criticising the government.

The presidents of Germany’s Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, Austria’s uniko and swissuniversities, Horst Hippler, Sonja Hammerschmid and Michael Hengartner respectively, have sharply criticised the repressive measures that the Turkish government has taken against the signatories.

“Freedom of opinion and academic freedom are inextricably linked,” says Hippler. “Just like any other citizens of a democratic country, academics must enjoy the right to freely express their views. Academic relations between Germany and Turkey have traditionally been good, and they are very important to us. We are all the more dismayed by the recent incidents.”

Hammerschmid noted that “freedom of opinion is a fundamental pillar of European values and of the scientific community that every government has to respect”. According to Hengartner, “universities are places of free thought and free debate. They therefore require special protection.”

According to Today’s Zaman, more than 1,500 academics in Germany have signed a declaration calling for the cessation of any kind of pressure applied on Turkish academics.

* The Nobel Prize laureates who signed the statement were: Peter Agre, Chemistry, 2003; Philip W Anderson, Physics, 1977; Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Physiology or Medicine, 2008; Gunter Blobel, Nobel Prize in Medicine, 1999; Martin Chalfie, Chemistry, 2008; Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Physics, 1997; Robert Curl, Chemistry, 1996; Johann Deisenhofer, Chemistry, 1988; Peter Diamond, Economics, 2010; Gerhard Ertl, Chemistry, 2007; Shelly Glashow, Physics, 1979; Roald Hoffmann, Chemistry, 1981; Wolfgang Ketterle, Physics, 2001; Klaus v Klitzing, Physics, 1985; Harold Kroto, Chemistry, 1996; Yuan T Lee, Chemistry, 1986; Anthony J Leggett, Physics, 2007; John Mather, Physics, 2006; James Mirrlees, Economics, 1996; William D Phillips, Physics, 1997; John Polanyi, Chemistry, 1986; Sir Richard J Roberts, Physiology or Medicine, 1993; Thomas A Steitz, Chemistry, 2009; Thomas C Südhof, Physiology or Medicine, 2013; John Sulston, Physiology or Medicine, 2002; Jack W Szostak, Physiology or Medicine, 2009; Torsten Wiesel, Physiology or Medicine, 1981; and Oliver E Williamson, Economics, 2009.

*This figure was updated on 25 January.