Human Rights

Across the United States, “heads are rolling” at the top of some Ivy League universities amid a campus-wide crackdown on students protesting Israel’s war in Gaza, shining a spotlight on the question of freedom of expression worldwide, said UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan.

“The Gaza crisis is truly becoming a global crisis of the freedom of expression,” said Ms. Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. “This is going to have huge repercussions for a long time to come.”

Demonstrations around the world have been roundly calling for an end to the war, which began in October following Hamas-led attacks on Israel that left 1,200 people dead and 250 taken hostage, 133 of who remain captive in Gaza. 

Since then, Israeli military operations have killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry, which now faces a man-made famine UN agencies have said stems from Israel’s restrictions on aid deliveries.

In an exclusive interview on Wednesday, she told UN News the way academic freedom in the United States is being restricted is infringing on people’s rights to protest over the on-going war and occupation, including on campuses of such elite Ivy League schools as Columbia, Harvard and Yale universities.


“One after the other, the Ivy League heads of colleges and universities, their heads are rolling, they’ve been chopped off,” she said. “That clearly polarises even further the political climate on this issue between ‘them’ and ‘us’.”

Confusion over political views and hate speech

Pointing to a troubling rise in hate speech on both sides of the protests, she said that at the same time, people must be allowed to express their political views.

In many of these protests, she said there is a confusion between what is hate speech or incitement to violence and what is basically a different view of the situation in Israel and the occupied territories – or criticism of the way Israel is conducting the conflict.

“Legitimate speech must be protected,” she said, “but, unfortunately, there is a hysteria that is taking hold in the US.”

Criticising Israel is ‘perfectly legitimate’

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia must be prohibited, and hate speech violates international law, she said.

Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion.

UN News, Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion.

“But, we must not mix that up with criticism of Israel as a political entity, as a State,” she said. “Criticising Israel is perfectly legitimate under international law.”

She said special rapporteurs have already detected a bias against pro-Palestinian supporters on social media.

We need freedom of expression,” she said, adding that it is a fundamental right that is important for democracy, development, conflict resolution and building peace.

“If we sacrifice all that, politicising the issue and undermining the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression, then I believe we are doing a disservice for which we will pay a price,” she said. “It will be harder to negotiate if you shut down one side.”

Special Rapporteurs and other Human Rights Council-appointed experts are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organization. They serve in their individual capacity and receive no salary for their work.