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Should universities go to war?

31 March 2023

Vincent Blondel, Rector of UCLouvain, President of the European Alliance Circle U.

These are troubled times. In many parts of the world, violence is mixed with injustice. Europe is no exception. Europe is experiencing both a terrible war in Ukraine, because of the Russian aggression, and the rise of internal forces that threaten the creation of a unified, peaceful, and democratic European Union. Tragically, violence is also sometimes closer to home, at work or in the public space.

Violence, whether physical or symbolic, is often both the cause and the result of situations of injustice. The link between violence and injustice is reciprocal. Injustice generates violence which, in turn, leads to injustice. Each gives rise to and sustains the other. It is tempting to believe that counter-violence is enough to stop violence. But even if it is sometimes necessary, counter-violence is often only an illusion because it leads to new injustices.

To break the reinforcing circle between injustice and violence, universities traditionally rely on words, reason, and dialogue. Reason establishes objective facts in front of which false quarrels can dissipate. Words can help to understand, support, or heal when combined with images that move and mobilize. Words can unite, give each person their due, recognizing them as free and equal subjects.

But how can we still trust reason and dialogue when the only dialogue is that of tanks and cannons? In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Ukrainian human rights activist Oleksandra Matviishuk made it clear: ” The international system of peace and security does not work anymore. For a long time, we used law to protect human rights, but now we do not have any legal mechanisms to stop Russian atrocities. So many of the human rights activists were compelled to defend what they believe in with arms in their hands.”

There is something dramatic about entering violence. Europe had lost the habit of handing out weapons and counting tanks.

Counter-violence is sometimes necessary. But even this is managed with words, rules, and benchmarks. No area of human reality is exempt from ethics, and there is an ethics of the use of violence that must be applied, especially in wartime. If the effectiveness of violence is short term, the work of words and images is long term. It articulates meaning and opens the future.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born out of the horror of the Second World War in 1948. Today, it binds billions of human beings and grants equal rights to all of us. Even today, in many places and for many of us, these rights offer the guarantee of a dignified existence. For many, but not for all. Freedom and equality for others begin with our own actions. We have within us the capacity to bring out the best in each other. This is also one of the missions of our universities and that of university networks, including the Coimbra Group. The recent CG international conference ‘Reflecting on peace in Ukraine: long term narratives, wars of disinformation, peace diplomacy and peace building‘ falls within this spirit.