Queen’s has ties to companies involved in human rights abuses. We should all care.

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Queen’s should cut its financial and research ties to companies involved in the ongoing human rights crisis in Western China, where an estimated 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities are being arbitrarily detained in re-education camps.

Currently, Queen’s invests in controversial tech companies iFlyTek and Hikvision—which were blacklisted by the United States in October for their involvement in the detention and surveillance of minority Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China.

According to a US Commerce Department filing, the companies have been “implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups.”

Queen’s also has an ongoing research partnership with iFlyTek, an artificial intelligence firm, to develop deep learning modelling that detects and processes speech. The project is valued at $727,000. 

iFlyTek has reportedly worked with authorities in Xinjiang to deploy a technology called voiceprint, which human rights groups say can track unique signatures in a person’s voice. The technology is one piece of a larger surveillance apparatus created in the region.

What’s worse is that Queen’s is standing behind the project anyways. 

“In undertaking any research partnerships, we ensure that work is done in full compliance with all applicable Canadian laws and directives,” the University wrote in a statement to The Journal in October. “To date there have been no directives given in regards to research partnerships with companies from China.”

Although the government hasn’t barred universities from working with the companies, Queen’s can—and should—act on its own. In the last year, several US universities have started distancing themselves from Chinese tech giants involved in supplying surveillance equipment. 

The University should lead by example by divesting from iFlyTek and Hikvision, while making sure research conducted at Queen's doesn't end up supporting human rights abuses abroad.

Hikvision, which bills itself as the world’s largest video surveillance company, has also been accused of facilitating mass surveillance of Uyghurs, even providing cameras to re-education camps in Xinjiang directly.

The University must do better to identify, assess, and act on its ties to companies implicated in human rights abuses internationally. If you want to make your voice heard by decision-makers, email the Office of the Principal, the Office of the Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration), and the Office of Vice-Principal (Research).

As stakeholders in the Queen’s community, we must demand answers from University leadership about why it maintains—and defends—these relationships.  

Iain is The Journal’s Managing Editor. He is a fifth-year History student.

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