The group highlight concerns that the partnership would “whitewash” the UAE’s “poor human right’s record”David Rodrigo/UNSPLASH

The Human Rights Watch has called on the University of Cambridge to reflect on the implications of its proposed £400m deal with the United Arab Emirates, citing concerns over reputational whitewashing, freedom of speech, human rights abuses, and its use of surveillance software in a letter to the Vice-Chancellor.

Though Vice-Chancellor Toope told Varsity in October that the multi-million pound deal was “on hold for now”, he said that he and his colleagues would be “reflecting over the next few months before further evaluating” the deal, hinting that the controversial partnership may go ahead in the future.

The letter, sent in conjunction with non-profit human rights organisation FairSquare, states that the University’s partnership with the country would “serve to whitewash the reputation of a government that systematically imprisons critics and denies fundamental civil and political rights.”

It references human rights groups’ description of the UAE as a state with “deeply repressive laws” in which “free expression” is “quashed” and there is an “absence” of an independent judiciary.

The Human Rights Watch, an international organisation for advocacy against human rights abuses, also echoed the Vice-Chancellor’s own concern around the UAE’s reported use of Pegasus spyware, which Stephen Toope gave as his reasoning for choosing not to pursue talks with the UAE at present.


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£400m deal with United Arab Emirates on pause, Vice-Chancellor reveals

The letter demands that several steps are taken if the partnership is to go ahead. These include that the University demands that the UAE offers “clear public support to guarantee the protection of academic freedom”, pledging not to censor anyone affiliated with the university from criticising the UAE. They also advise that the University guarantees that university-affiliated professors and students are not denied entry to the UAE for their criticism or publicly speaking out in support of imprisoned academics and activists in the UAE.

In October this year, Toope announced a set of principles for Managing Risks in International Engagement, in which many of the contentious issues surrounding the University’s relationship with states such as China, Egypt and the UAE were addressed. The principles include defending academic freedom and mitigating risks to protect academics.

Today’s “increasingly complex” world “requires more international engagement, not less”, Toope said. Universities “cannot be naive” about entering into overseas partnerships. “We cannot ignore geopolitical realities, but nor should we be immobilised by them,” he said. “Our new international engagement principles will allow us to pursue impactful research and education with partners across the world — while giving us the confidence that we can do it on our own terms, and in alignment with our values.”

A spokesperson for the University told Varsity that it “has numerous partnerships with governments and organisations around the world” and that it “approached the United Arab Emirates as it does all potential partnerships: with an open mind, and rigorously weighing the opportunities to contribute to society – through collaborative research, education and innovation – against any challenges. These are always finely balanced assessments.”

Refusing to rule out the possibility that the deal would be pursued at a future date, the spokesperson continued that the University would be “reflecting over the next few months before further evaluating our long term options with our partners and with the University community.”