UN: Attacks against Colin Harvey threaten academic freedom in Northern Ireland
An ongoing smear campaign against human rights lawyer Colin Harvey threatens academic freedom in Northern Ireland and has the potential to spark physical violence, UN human rights experts have said.
Since 2019, Professor Harvey, former commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, has been the subject of a vicious online campaign, in connection with his work as professor of human rights law at Queens University Belfast. His academic credibility has come under attack and he received hundreds of smears and threats from politicians, journalists and other social media users. His personal security has also been threatened.
Much of his recent work focuses on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. “The threats seek to discredit his academic standing by making baseless claims he is connected with paramilitary groups or equating his ideas with Nazism,” the experts said.
The experts are: Irene Khan, special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Koumba Boly Barry, special rapporteur on the right to education; and Diego García-Sayán, special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.
The UN experts are particularly concerned that the threats are taking place in an increasingly polarised political landscape in Northern Ireland. Previous physical attacks on leading human rights figures were preceded by campaigns of vilification. “We believe the campaign against Colin Harvey may constitute incitement of national hatred, putting him at risk of physical harm,” the experts said.
They warned that smear campaigns and threats of physical attack against academics could have dire consequences for academic freedom in a country. “When attacks are made against legitimate academic work, it deals a blow to democracy, progress and development,” the experts said. “Debate becomes stifled and other academics consider self-censoring or begin to shy away from meaningful debate.”
The experts expressed concern that some influential figures in the country were fuelling conspiracy theories about Professor Harvey. “When those in authority take part in smear campaigns, they legitimise attacks from other members of society,” they said.
“Fomenting a narrative that a person is untrustworthy because of their national identity or viewpoint can have dire consequences, not only on that individual, but on all those who hold similar beliefs or hail from similar backgrounds.
“Northern Ireland knows better than most the value of conciliation and mutual understanding. We urge for debate in the media and among public officials and private citizens online to be held in a constructive and meaningful manner, to preserve peace, security and academic freedom in Northern Ireland.”