University of Cape Town: ASSAf must rethink its fence-sitting and condemn the Russian invasion

The academy’s failure to condemn Vladimir Putin’s attempt to conquer and colonise Ukraine is especially outrageous because the invasion has indeed affected scientists directly and indirectly, write the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Jeremy Seekings and Professor Nicoli Nattrass.

We watch with horror the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A broadly democratic and sovereign country is invaded, without provocation, by a former imperial power with renewed imperial ambitions.

Despite Russia’s blatant violation of the United Nations Charter and international law, the South African government joined many of the world’s most authoritarian regimes in sitting on the fence. So much for the South African government’s supposed commitment to democracy and opposition to imperialism.

While South African civil society has generally spoken out in opposition to violent Russian imperialism, some organisations have followed the government’s lead, implying indifference between violent imperialism and democracy.

The most recent organisation to do so is the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). On Friday, 11 March 2022, ASSAf wrote to its members saying that it was “deeply saddened by the tragic events following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequences for human life and settlements” — but nonetheless opted “not to issue a statement on the crisis in Ukraine at this time”.

ASSAf justified its fence-sitting on the grounds that it had previously decided — in the context of debate over Palestine — “not to issue a statement unless questions of science and the work of scientists were at the centre of the concerns of an Academy such as ours”.

ASSAf’s failure to condemn Putin’s attempt to conquer and colonise Ukraine is especially outrageous because the invasion has indeed affected scientists directly and indirectly.

Does ASSAf believe that Ukrainian educational institutions have been spared Russian shells and missiles? Does ASSAf really believe that Ukrainian scientists are able to continue their work while Russian shells and missiles pulverise towns and cities?

Anyone watching television coverage will have seen that Ukrainian university buildings and libraries — as well as residential buildings, hospitals and other public buildings — have been bombed by the Russian military. Anyone paying any attention to the news will be aware of the desperate flight of foreign university students — along with millions of Ukrainians — to neighbouring countries.

At least one Indian medical student was killed in the Russian bombardment of Kharkiv. Students who escaped tell of the trauma of first sheltering for days in basements while the city above them was bombarded by the Russians, and then fleeing to Poland by any mode of transport possible. When the Russian army invaded Ukraine, pro-Russian hackers reportedly compromised the websites of 30 Ukrainian universities.

The humanitarian disaster sweeping across Ukraine does not leave scientists and students untouched. They, like everyone else, have had their lives and work upended. Ukrainian universities have had to suspend most or all of their activities.

Moreover, how can the Orwellian crackdown on communication and the beating and jailing of critics in Russia not be at the centre of concerns of an Academy such as ours?

How can this Academy of ours not immediately laud and endorse the courageous condemnation of the invasion by more than 7,000 Russian scientists and science journalists, including 70 members of the Russian Academy of Sciences?

At great risk to themselves, these scientists declared their:

“… strong opposition to the Russian hostilities launched against the Ukrainian people. These hostilities are incurring huge human losses and undermine the foundations of the established system of international security. The responsibility for unleashing a new war in Europe lies entirely with Russia.

“There is no rational justification for this war. Obviously, Ukraine poses no threat to the security of Russia. The attempts to use the situation in Donbas as a pretext for launching a military operation are totally contrived. The war against Ukraine is unjust and frankly nonsense… We are convinced that all of the problems in the relationships between our countries could have been resolved peacefully.”

The leading academies of science elsewhere in the world have already condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In their joint statement, the academies of science in the G7 countries declared:

“The unprovoked attack against Ukraine, a democratic and independent country, is a blatant violation of international law and of core values of humanity. The Russian invasion is an assault on the fundamental principles of freedom, democracy and self-determination, which provide the basis for academic freedom and opportunities for scientific exchange and cooperation.

“In this dark hour, our thoughts and deepest sympathy are with the people of Ukraine. We are determined to support the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. We stand in solidarity with the scientific community and the scientists in Ukraine.

“We acknowledge the Russian scientists and citizens who are ashamed of this attack and speak out against the war.

“We call on the Russian leadership to immediately cease all military action against Ukraine and put an end to this war.”

Nature is opposed to a boycott of Russian scientists but nonetheless calls on “the whole scientific community” to “stand united in opposition to Russia’s aggression”.

Leading universities elsewhere in the world have spoken out.

Lund University in Sweden, which is not even a member of Nato, stated that “the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens international peace and security and violates international law and the European security order. Lund University stands in solidarity with the Ukrainian higher education institutions.”

Oxford University in the UK denounced “the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia” which had caused “a humanitarian catastrophe… Members of our community are appalled by Russia’s action and in awe of the bravery shown by Ukrainians as well as the bravery of those Russians who have denounced their government’s aggression”.

Australia’s “Group of 8” top universities announced that they stood “in solidarity with the global research community in condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s people and sovereignty”.

“As universities who are committed to research, education and global engagement with the goal of creating a better world, we condemn the invasion and express our sympathy and support for our Ukrainian colleagues and all who are affected. … The Go8 notes that many Russians, including academics and researchers, have bravely taken actions or issued statements condemning this war.”

Queen’s University in Canada explicitly pointed to the wider ramifications for science and scholarship:

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is cause for great concern for the international community. As an institution of higher learning dedicated to humanity’s free pursuit of knowledge and truth, Queen’s [University] stands in opposition to this act of aggression, and we are committed to assisting, in whatever ways we can, those who have been affected by these tragic events.”

The university quoted Ronald Daniels’ recent book, What Universities Owe Democracy:

“Autocratic regimes extinguish the expressive freedom and organic flourishing of students and scholars. For those who love and believe in the university, we cannot be agnostic about, or indifferent to, the vibrancy of liberal democracy.”

The principal of Queen’s University commented:

“Conversely, we must condemn any and all actions that threaten democracy, for the simple reason that they undermine what every student, faculty or staff member at this university has to believe: namely, that the pursuit of knowledge and truth has an inherent and persisting value for humanity and that the health of our society depends upon it.

“Thus, while we feel deep concern about the safety and welfare of the Ukrainian people at large, we must stand in special solidarity with the more than eight hundred institutions of higher learning in Ukraine whose values, aspirations, and very purpose for being has been put under threat by the invasion.”

Universities in Poland have opened up their facilities to Ukrainian refugees. Universities in the Nordic countries are trying to accommodate displaced Ukrainian scholars and students. As the Norwegian Minister of Higher Education and Research said: “They are in need of help, and that they will get.”

What is stopping ASSAf from simply speaking out in public defence of democracy as well as Ukrainian scientists — along with all other Ukrainians and the many foreign students and others who are victims of Russian aggression — and against Russian imperialism?

ASSAf insists that it has not been swayed by the reported instruction from the South African government that they “should not engage in any action of any kind, which could be construed as a political commentary or political reaction to the developments in Ukraine”.

Sitting on the fence serves, however, to legitimise the South African government’s alignment with imperialism and authoritarianism against democracy.

ASSAf’s pusillanimous missive to its members concluded that, “in light of the devastation wrought by the Russian invasion, Council will again consider on an urgent basis when, how and whether to respond to global political crisis”.

If ASSAf does stand for science, then it must rethink its fence-sitting and condemn the Russian invasion in solidarity with Ukraine, as scientists and as democrats and anti-imperialists.

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