Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights: An interview

Justin Podur interviews Tarek Lubani of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, University of Western Ontario

The University of Western Ontario is a medium-sized University campus at which typical campus activism takes place. Like many North American campuses, activism on Israel/Palestine is a feature of campus life. Also like many North American campuses, suppressing such activism seems to be a priority for the establishment. The deratification Tuesday, and treatment throughout of the campus group Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) fits well into this North American context, though it seems a particularly farcical example. In the interest that there be a public record of all such events, great and small, tragic and farcical, I conducted a short interview with Tarek Lubani, a campus activist in SPHR, who described the strange situation for the record.

Justin Podur: Please describe SPHR and how it works on the Western campus.

Tarek Lubani: SPHR UWO started in September 2003, at the beginning of the school year. Until it was founded, the concern for Palestinian human rights on campus was voiced by religious or cultural groups like the Muslim or Arab students' associations. We wanted to create a place where Palestinian human rights was the main focus, not a sub-agenda. Our core membership is more than 100, which makes us one of the larger groups on campus. We are mostly students, but we work closely with groups like Sabeel, UWO PIRG, and the campus chapters of NGOs like OxFam.

We mainly run events with honest and frank discussion about the state of Palestinian human rights and the progress of the struggle. We regularly host one or two events each month with a range of views. In the past couple of years, we've hosted Robert Fisk, a distinguished reporter; Dr. Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions; Dr. Uri Davis, a scholar and "anti-Zionist Palestinian Jew"; former MP Carolyn Parrish; and more. We have people come and speak, and we run activities to help people think about, visualize, or imagine what is happening. We have worked hard to be part of coalitions committed to human rights, and have tried to maintain a reasonably high profile for issues of Palestinian human rights.

JP: So, tell us about the wall that started things off.

TL: This is where this particular tale starts. On 29 November 2004, members of SPHR set up a mock Apartheid Wall in the student centre as an educational tool to show people what the Apartheid Wall in Israel and the illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories is like. It was part of the official UN Day for International Solidarity with the Palestinian people.

A Poor Substitute for a Wall

JP: I assume that your wall was a poor substitute for the real thing: did it have moats, barbed wire, electrical current, or snipers with live ammunition? Did you confiscate the student centre and declare it a closed military zone?

TL: Indeed it was a terrible substitute. It was made out of paper, 2mm thick, and was only 5m high (the real Wall is 8m high). Some did accuse us of dividing the student centre though.

Our mock Apartheid Wall was put up after many weeks of approval processes. Before it was erected, it was approved by the student council and its organs. After it was put up, it was again approved by the student council and its organs, the London Police Hate Crimes Division, and the University Equity Services.

The day it went up, the local Israel Action Committee sent an email to its members telling them to disrupt the wall. They did so: they came with flyers and made a lot of noise and commotion, driving away a lot of people who didn't know much about the situation.

After the event, the same group sent out a sample complaint which became the template for 30-40 students to send in complaints as a campaign against SPHR.

Also after the event, the President of the university, Paul Davenport – who incidentally is no friend of progressive agendas – came out and said the wall was protected by free speech and within the boundaries of intelligent debate. The student council released a statement saying the wall was acceptable. The Board of Governors of the same council voted on the issue and said it was fine. All of the groups that had approved it beforehand were present on the day of the event. All declared it was fine.

But it wasn't, evidently. On December 17, 2004, we got an email from the Clubs Policy Committee, a subcommittee of the student council, telling us there was a complaint against us. We weren't allowed to see the complaint or hear a summary. We were not allowed to respond or defend ourselves. But we were told 24 hours later that we had been banned from all student council facilities for two years.

We asked the Ombudsperson to write a report on the matter, on due process grounds. The Ombudsperson recommended that the student council overturn the decision and it did.

The Long Road to Deratification

JP: Isn't that due process?

TL: Well, you could argue that due process includes the concept of double jeopardy - that you shouldn't be tried for an offence you were already found innocent of. Yet even after the many exhonorations, the Clubs Policy Committee (CPC) struck again last September 2005, with another email telling us we were up for sanctions on the same charges. We were allowed to write a response this time, and we got very good, committed people who saw this as an attack on free speech, to write one. The CPC made their submission to the student council, removing large chunks of our response, with no stated cause other than their 'irrelevance'. We asked the CPC to leave our defense whole and mark the parts they thought were irrelevant. They refused.

The person responsible for interpreting the legal positions of ourselves and the CPC was David Forestell, who also happens to have backed the Israel Action Committee (IAC) student council candidate, former Israel Action Committee (IAC) president Matt Abramsky. He invited Irshad Manji to speak about her book "The Trouble with Islam" last year under the auspices of the university gay-rights group and the IAC. We asked him to declare a conflict of interest in this case, but he refused.

The outcome of this process? SPHR was again banned for a year.

JP: You have told me in the past that SPHR's website was also edited then removed by the student council. Could you tell us about that?

TL: In the fall of 2005, we consulted with our membership and decided to post all the information we had online. We finally received the complaint with no stipulations, so we published that as well. We wanted to show people what was going on: if we were to be banned, we wanted the ban to see the light of day and those who banned us to have to make their case publicly, with our response alongside the complaint.

Not long after posting, during the 2005 Christmas exams, we got an email saying that unless we removed the complaint from our website, we would be up for 'review'. The CPC claimed the complaints were confidential. We replied that their case ought to be able to withstand public scrutiny and we were given the complaint without any stipulation that it would be confidential.

Apparently unconvinced, the student council shut down our website and we were brought before the CPC again - remember this is in the midst of the Christmas exams. We were given 2 days to prepare a defense, but it looked so obviously terrible that we eventually were allowed an extension into the new year. Of course the CPC voted against us, and we were banned from keeping a website on the university server.

JP: And that brings us to this latest decision. Could you explain what the complaints against you were, and what happened?

TL: I'll give you the punch line: SPHR does not have the right to exist on UWO campus. There are two major issues to talk about with relation to the latest decision. First, the process was unfair. Second, the complaints are laughably ridiculous. I'll take them one by one, if I may.

Exactly like last time, we weren't allowed to see the complaints against us. We were asked to sign a ridiculous confidentiality agreement that forbade us from even showing the documents to our legal counsel. Needless to say, we refused and asked the USC to simply redact the names and release the complaints. When they refused, we asked the Ombudsperson to write a report on the matter. She did, and found that "it is not necessary to have a blanket confidentiality agreement in order to protect the information of the person(s) making a complaint", ultimately recommending that the "USC reconsider [this] practice" so it may "protect the integrity of its policies and procedures". The USC rejected, and has turned down at least 3 offers for SPHR and the USC to go to mediation to help release the documents. We simply could not prepare a defence when we did not know the contents of the complaints, so we were forced to submit a letter of protest instead of a proper defence.

There isn't much to be said about the two complaints against us. It's all summed up in one of the lines from the decision, which found us guilty of breaching our one-year ban: "On March 23, 2006, the USC hosted an Anti-Hate Vigil. SPHR participated in the event at the request of the [Student Council's elected] Vice-President Campus Issues at that time." So, SPHR was invited by the student council to speak against hate, and did a marvelous job of this, and then were promptly sanctioned for doing so by the student council?

It helps you realize why they won't release the complaints. They obviously don't have a leg to stand on legally, morally, or in any other way.

The Future of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights

JP: So, what now for SPHR UWO? What can people do to help out?

TL: We have to understand this for what it is: An assault on the rights of Palestinian people to have their voices heard on Canadian campuses. The most important thing that anybody can do is to get informed about issues affecting Palestinian human rights, and help educate others about them.

In the vein of education, people can also check out our website, , to see the archives of all the publicly available communications and complaints. People can also join SPHR UWO at that site to receive our emails and communications and to participate in the club.

Lastly, people can make their voices heard. Those with time and energy can write letters to the addresses below, including the USC, the UWO President, and the university newspaper, The Gazette. Those with slightly less time can sign our petition, which automatically sends a form letter to the USC and the UWO president.

Tarek Lubani is a member of the recently deratified SPHR UWO.

Justin Podur is a writer based in Toronto.