Viviana Fernández

“We need to create more awareness and defend academic freedom in the Americas.”

Viviana Fernández, representative of the Coalition for Academic Freedom in the Americas (CAFA), tells us about CAFA’s objectives and activities to make visible and address the multiple challenges that the academic community is currently facing in the region.

How and why was the Coalition for Academic Freedom in the Americas created?

The Coalition for Academic Freedom in the Americas (CAFA) is a response to the need for increased awareness and advocacy in defense of academic freedom across the region. CAFA grew out the interest of Scholars at Risk (SAR) and two of its members, the Universidad de Monterrey (UdeM) and the University of Ottawa (uOttawa), to do something that would resonate within the Americas region to protect and defend the values of higher education and academic freedom. Recognizing that the Inter-American system could be fertile ground to develop clear, regionally-tailored guidelines surrounding academic freedom, we formally launched this partnership in early 2021.

SAR and uOttawa had worked for some time organizing sessions and engaging with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), focusing on academic freedom. The partners also prepared legal briefs and Amici on leading cases in Colombia, Chile and Mexico, and monitored attacks on higher education communities in various countries since 2018. UdeM contributed its connections in the region and capacity to engage with new collaborators and like-minded individuals to establish a network across several countries.

The launch of CAFA coincided with a time when a growing discourse around the legal and practical understanding of academic freedom around the world was emerging, promising to serve as a foundation for a regional response. This included the United Nations General Assembly Report on Academic Freedom by David Kaye, former UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which highlights the special role played by academics and academic institutions in democratic societies. The text, published in October 2020, notes that “without academic freedom, societies lose one of the essential elements of democratic self-governance: the capacity for self-reflection, for knowledge generation and for a constant search for improvements of people’s lives and social conditions.”

What are the Coalition’s main lines of work and strategies to strengthen academic freedom?

The Coalition’s primary objectives are to (1) contribute to the effective implementation of the Inter-American Principles on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy adopted in December 2021; (2) increase public understanding of the importance of academic freedom to a democratic society in the Americas and protect the spaces where scientists, policymakers, and advocates can develop the solutions to society’s problems; (3) monitor situations that may affect academic freedom in the Americas and develop connections with relevant stakeholders; (4) lead, support, and grow a sustainable, hemisphere-wide network of advocates and allies, who are well-positioned to identify and respond to threats, and generate strategies for protecting and promoting academic freedom that are both consistent with international norms and tailored to local realities.

In terms of the first objective, CAFA is member of an academic network from the IACHR and in this context, we actively supported the development and adoption of the Inter-American Principles on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy. This development occurred after two years of engagement with the Commission, beginning with a hearing in Sucre, Bolivia in February 2019. The Principles describe the foundations of a human rights approach for responding to attacks on academic freedom. While they draw heavily on existing hard- and soft-law documents, CAFA members successfully pushed for the inclusion of standards that respond to current issues of concern globally such as the growing problem of political appointments to university leadership positions. The document included a section on implementation and a mechanism to monitor violations and compliance, to ensure that the next phase will focus on providing real guidance to universities, professors, students, advocates, and political leaders, on how to make the Principles a lived reality on campuses in the Americas.

To tackle the second objective, we must generate an understanding outside the higher education space of the importance of academic freedom. For this reason, representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs, such as organizations working on education, women’s rights, freedom of expression and other related issues) will be invited to attend the CAFA annual conferences, meetings and webinars, provide strategic advice, and potentially develop joint advocacy actions where issues overlap. Country-focused sessions will also help showcase cases that can be leveraged or serve as examples in other contexts. Invitees will include local and regional CSO who are working on public interest litigation, so that when justiciable academic freedom cases arise, they are identified and acted on in local or national courts.

For the third objective, we work with SAR, uOttawa and a group of regional partners and students to monitor situations and attacks across all the countries in the hemisphere. In addition, CAFA does research to drafts concept notes, briefing papers, presentations and amicus briefs/submissions in support of cases in the region. This work may also entail identifying potential expert witnesses for academic freedom-related cases throughout the Americas.

In terms of the fourth objective, we are focusing on network building through targeted, sustained outreach to key national and regional higher education institutions, associations, academics, and civil society organizations, seeking opportunities to present the project through online communications, conferences and events. To this end, our website displays content in Spanish, English, Portuguese and French. In it, we plan to share resources, sample legal arguments, high quality clinical and instructional materials, international instruments, legal decisions, videos and regional news of interest for our members and partners. Newsletters, webinars or podcasts about relevant issues will maintain the interest of participants to engage in this work and follow up on developments in the region.

By organizing the work along these four axes, CAFA’s intent is to reinforce the role of academic freedom and higher education in supporting peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and rights-respecting societies. In doing so, the Coalition and its members will become global leaders on the development of relevant human rights norms and standards and generate best practices that other regions can follow.

What are the main problems and challenges that you identify as affecting academic freedom and the risks for researchers and academics in the region?

Attacks on higher education in the region tend to include recurring crackdowns on student expression, state killings, disappearances, imprisoning and exiling of academics and students, restrictions on expression on or off campus, threats to university autonomy and incursions by police and security forces into university campuses, defunding measures targeting specific areas of study or classes, as well as sexual harassment and assault on campus. Conflict, political interference, and the COVID-19 pandemic have heightened these challenges, by compromising university research and instruction, diminishing the space for the study and analysis of government initiatives and programs, curtailing institutions to function largely online, halting international exchanges, imposing austerity measures due to the financial crisis resulting from the pandemic or shuttering universities altogether. Racial discrimination issues are also present in the region and range from racial slurs in classrooms and online meetings to discriminatory treatment inside and outside campus. At the same time, protracted situations like in Venezuela have continued their course without prospect for change.

In terms of university autonomy, cases of political leaders appointing their allies to positions of university leadership, with little or no consultation with the affected higher education community are having grave consecuences in Brazil, Mexico and the USA, fundamentally altering curricula, university governance, and the character of universities more broadly.

Academics may face risks for the work they do as well as for their activism. However one of the main challenges to raise awareness about the pervasive nature of these problems is that most times, these risks are not recognized as related to academic freedom violations or attacks. A person may be arrested for protesting on the streets and most times, the fact that he/she is an academic is not reported or taken into account to characterize the issue in the media or in the courts. This is something that needs to change so we can address the implications of such attacks in the correct context. In order to apply tools like the Inter-American Principles on Academic Freedom and University Autonomy, we need to know that the violations occured in higher education settings or that they affected people linked with these institutions.

Another significant challenge has to do with insuficient monitoring and reporting in the region. We must increase the number of partners who contribute to this effort in order to understand the size of the problem, the complexity of the cases we face and to share the learnings of each situation. To this end, part of CAFA’s work has to do with encouraging new partners to participate in this task.

What similarities and differences do you see in the restrictions that Academic Freedom is suffering in the Americas in comparison with other regions of the world? Are there any specific dynamics of the region that make it different from the rest?

In the context of the monitoring work done by SAR and other partners across the world, we see similarities in the type of attacks and strategies invoked by authoritarian regimes. This work entails identifying, assessing and tracking incidents involving one or more of five defined types of conduct which may constitute violations of academic freedom and/or the human rights of members of higher education communities: Killings/violence/disappearances; wrongful imprisonment/detention; wrongful prosecution; restrictions on travel or movement; and retaliatory discharge/loss of position/expulsion from study. Other significant events (reported by SAR and partners under the “Other” umbrella) include for example, incidents of military occupation of campuses, gender violence and significant repression of student movements.

Latin American higher education institutions and civil society organizations have a rich academic freedom-related history, including the innovation of the autonomous university model following the 1918 Cordoba reforms, and the hosting of European refugee scholars of the 1930s at the Colegio de Mexico, to name only a few. Attacks on higher education in the region include recurring crackdowns on student expression, among them the 1968 assault on students at UNAM through recent attacks on students in Nicaragua; state killing, disappearances, imprisoning and exiling of academics and students in the 1960s, 70s and 80s in Cuba, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil; left- and right-wing paramilitary attacks on universities in El Salvador and Colombia in the 1980s and 90s; and threats to university autonomy in the 2000s up to the present, including in Venezuela and Brazil. This history contributed to the evolution of highly sophisticated national and regional human rights mechanisms that are key for purposes of legal advocacy actions and the implementation of the Inter-American Principles. This is indeed a particularity that allows for legal approaches that are not possible in other regions and CAFA intends to use this to advance its goals.

Who (individuals or institutions) and how can they participate and support the work of the Coalition?

The Coalition is a network of individuals who want to contribute and advocate for the respect of academic freedom in the Americas region. Our vision is to support a strong community of advocates, equipped with legal and practical tools to defend the higher education environments where they work, learn and exchange ideas. We seek to develop dynamic ways to exchange information among members, to learn from each other by sharing experiences and strategies that can be replicated and/or adjusted to different contexts, and to contribute to the implementation of the Inter-American Principles.

Individuals from universities and other academic institutions or organizations who believe in protecting academic freedom can make a difference by contributing to our monitoring work which is closely linked to the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project and its Free to Think Reports (annual publications). This can be especially valuable for human rights and legal clinics operating in universities which is a model we have developed at the University of Ottawa (Human Rights Clinic – SAR in the Americas project). Like in most regions of the world, the numbers of attacks tracked do not reflect the real scope of the problem. By increasing the Latin American participation in the monitoring of attacks, we hope to increase awareness about—and more refined responses to—this global problem.

By joining CAFA, members can also engage in research and publications, participate in events, workshops and conferences. In this context, the Coalition’s first conference took place in November 2022 and was hosted by the Universidad de Monterrey. A special issue of the Revista Internacional de Derecho y Ciencias Sociales (Universidad de Monterrey) will be published in spring/summer 2023 with a selection of the presentations made during the conference. This is something we will continue to do in the context of future CAFA annual conferences to strengthen the global scholarship on university values, academic freedom and university autonomy.

Another important way in which people can get involved is by supporting the hosting of scholars at risk. This is a key aspect of SAR’s work, and we fully endorse the creation of such placements across the region so colleagues who have experienced threats and/or violence can find refuge and continue their academic work in better conditions.