SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: November 16, 2023

Attack Types: Killings, Violence, Disappearances

Institution(s):University of Lausanne

Region & Country:Europe | Switzerland

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On November 16, 2023, police pepper sprayed and temporarily detained pro-Palestinian student protesters at the University of Lausanne (UNIL).

The incident occurred against the backdrop of a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of mid-March 2024, has reportedly killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. The violence has led to heightened tensions on campuses around the world.

The students were protesting the arrival of the French president Emmanuel Macron, criticizing the French government’s support for Israeli military actions in Gaza. Macron was at UNIL to participate in a discussion on challenges facing Europe with former Swiss president Alain Berset.

On the morning of November 16, as around 200 students marched through campus, police attempted to block the protesters from continuing. In a video, police and students are seen shoving each other as the students attempt to advance. In another video, a police officer is seen spraying pepper spray into the crowd of protesters.

Following the escalation, UNIL vice-rector Benoît Frund arrived to mediate the situation and informed the students that they would be held in a cordoned area until the event was finished. The protesters were not permitted to leave for over two hours.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the temporary detention of and use of force against students exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly— conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Switzerland is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from restricting the right to freedom of expression. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of force and detention to restrict expressive activity undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.

*SAR identified this incident in data made publicly available by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)