Human Rights

US Campuses: UN Rights Chief Calls Out ‘Over-the-Top’ Police Response at Gaza Protests

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday said he was troubled by “a series of heavy-handed steps” taken by some universities in the United States to disperse and dismantle Gaza war protests.

In recent days, demonstrations unfolding through tented encampments on school grounds – sparked by students at New York’s prestigious Columbia University who are demanding authorities divest from Israel due to its occupation and military assault on Gaza – have spread nationwide.

University authorities from the west to east coast have taken different approaches, ranging from Columbia’s initial response to authorise police to clear protests by force to continuing negotiations and allowing the encampments to remain.

Tweet URL

Columbia protests intensify

Columbia’s protesters ignored an ultimatum from the university to leave the camp or risk suspension on Monday. Early on Tuesday morning, students took over historic Hamilton Hall on campus, barricading themselves inside.

The building was one of those occupied in civil rights and Viet Nam war protests by students in 1968.

The university president announced earlier on Monday that dialogue with protesters had failed, and the institution would not bow to demands to divest from Israel.

Right to protest is ‘fundamental’

In his statement on Tuesday, UN rights chief Volker Türk said that freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly were “fundamental to society”, particularly when there is sharp disagreement on major issues as there is in relation to the conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel.

He noted that in recent weeks, thousands of university students in the US have been protesting the war, and many demonstrations have taken place without incident.

But, there have also been hundreds of arrests following interventions on some campuses by security forces. Many have subsequently been released while others still face charges or academic sanctions.

Action taken by authorities and law enforcement officials to restrict such expression needs to be carefully scrutinised to ensure they do not go beyond what is demonstrably necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others or for another legitimate aim, such as the maintenance of public health or order, Mr. Türk said.

Incitement to violence ‘must be strongly repudiated’

I am concerned that some of law enforcement actions across a series of universities appear disproportionate in their impacts,” he stressed.

The rights chief emphasised that any clearly anti-Semitic conduct and speech was totally unacceptable and deeply disturbing. Anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian conduct and speech are equally reprehensible, he said.

Incitement to violence or hatred on grounds of identity or viewpoints – whether real or assumed – must be strongly repudiated,” he continued. “We have already seen such dangerous rhetoric can quickly lead to real violence.”

He said any violent conduct should be addressed on a case-by-case basis rather than through sweeping measures “that impute to all members of a protest the unacceptable viewpoints of a few”.

UN News/Ziad Taleb

A message of thanks to students around the world protesting events in Gaza is displayed on a tent in the south of the enclave.

Human rights law

“Here, as elsewhere, responses by universities and law enforcement need to be guided by human rights law, allowing vibrant debate and protecting safe spaces for all.”

The High Commissioner emphasised that any restrictions to fundamental freedoms of expression must be guided by “legality, necessity and proportionality” and applied without discrimination.

“US universities have a strong, historic tradition of student activism, strident debate and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Mr. Türk said.

“It must be clear that legitimate exercises of the freedom of expression cannot be conflated with incitement to violence and hatred.”

UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Protesters demonstrate outside the Columbia University campus in New York City.



  1. It’s concerning to see the aggressive tactics used by some universities to silence peaceful protests. The students are expressing legitimate concerns about human rights violations and should be allowed to voice their opinions freely.

  2. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is right to highlight the excessive use of force by some university authorities in handling the Gaza protests. Students have the right to peaceful demonstrations and their demands should be heard and addressed through dialogue, not forceful dispersal.

  3. Do you think the response of the universities reflects the concerns of the students accurately, or is it an overreach?

  4. Do you think the response from Columbia University was justified, considering the nature of the protests and the students’ demands?

  5. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over the aggressive actions taken by some universities in the US during the Gaza war protests. It is worrisome that authorities are resorting to force instead of peaceful dialogue to address these important issues.

  6. It’s concerning to see how law enforcement is handling these protests. Authorities should prioritize peaceful dialogue and respect the right to demonstrate. The heavy-handed responses only escalate tensions and hinder the progress towards a resolution.

  7. It’s concerning that the police response at the Gaza protests on US campuses is escalating. Dialogue and understanding should be prioritized over forceful dispersal of peaceful demonstrations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button