As a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize adds her name to the growing exodus of speakers from the Oxford Union, the Union President, Ben Sullivan, has finally issued a response. Not wanting to be left off the Open Letter bandwagon, he has written to speakers declaring that any attempt to boycott the Union offends against everything from ‘British law’ to ‘free speech’ and ‘a democratic society’. These are lofty allegations to make against a leading international human rights activist and the Secretary-General of INTERPOL, himself a high-profile lawyer, both of whom have joined a list of others in withdrawing from Union speaking engagements.
The main thrust of Sullivan’s letter is its insistence that he is innocent until proven guilty and nobody should presume his guilt. He is right of course. What Sullivan neglects to mention is that those of us who have called for his resignation have never denied his right to the presumption of innocence. We have made two different, very strong, criticisms, neither of which are even mentioned in the letter.
The first is that the prestige attached to Ben Sullivan’s office demands certain responsibilities of him. Recent days have demonstrated that the Oxford Union is a focus for media interest and the actions of its President are widely watched. In that context, Ben Sullivan has to think very seriously about the messages sent out by his behaviour. He should be concerned above all with ensuring that no one can be in any doubt about the seriousness with which the Oxford Union takes rape allegations. He should, as the Secretary-General of INTERPOL sternly advised, put ‘the best interests of his organisation’ above ‘his own interests’. When accused of a crime, he should step aside for the duration of the investigation. If he fails to do so, the Union should suspend him without prejudice. If Sullivan genuinely believes that would constitute an admission of guilt, he is simply unaware of standard practice in other prominent businesses and institutions, most of which suspend senior officials accused of crimes without making any judgement on their guilt or innocence.
The second criticism we have raised is institutional as well as personal, since it relates to the Oxford Union’s handling of the rape allegations. When the allegations first surfaced, the Union’s Standing Committee attempted to use its funds to threaten legal action against the press to prevent them from reporting the story. Ben Sullivan’s stated dedication to free speech in his letter to speakers jars with the attempt by him and others in the Union to take out an injunction to stem free debate in the media. When campaigners attempted to give the Union a chance to help clear its name by agreeing to hold consent workshops for its officers of the kind offered to all first-year undergraduates when they arrive in Oxford, the then Acting President Mayank Banerjee refused out of hand.
The ideal of free, open debate to which Sullivan proclaims his commitment requires full and free access to information. It is wrong of him to write to speakers and fail to mention any of these details. It is wrong of him to claim speakers are pulling out because they presume him to be guilty when he knows very well that they are cancelling their visits in disgust at his and the Union’s handling of the allegations, and not because they make any presumption about the veracity of the allegations themselves.
The sad truth is that Ben Sullivan must surely know that he could very easily mend the situation. He should stand aside while he remains on police bail, accused of rape and attempted rape. The Oxford Union should apologise for its collective mishandling of the accusations and should change its rules to ensure transparency and free expression are always given the premium they deserve in a society founded on those ideals.
There is considerable urgency to this demand. Two women have come forward alleging that they were the victims of sexual violence. The man they accuse has retained his position of influence even while under police investigation. That is deeply worrying. Rather than spending his time writing to speakers encouraging them to behave as if nothing is wrong, Ben Sullivan and the Oxford Union should be doing everything they can to show they understand both that rape is a serious crime and that every rape accusation should be dealt with seriously. Though Ben Sullivan may be innocent, his behaviour risks suggesting that prominent men are able to brush off rape allegations. It would be a genuine tragedy if news of this case dissuades victims of rape and sexual assault from coming forward in the future.
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