Foreign interference fears after Sydney University cancels Western Sahara speaker | World news

The cancellation of a speech by a Western Saharan human rights advocate at the University of Sydney has reanimated concerns over foreign interference on Australian campuses.

The university has insisted the sold-out event featuring Sahrawi advocate Tecber Ahmed Saleh, scheduled for Wednesday, was cancelled only because it was too similar to a previous address she made on campus earlier this month.

But Western Sahara advocates say the two events were different, and they believe Saleh’s speech was cancelled after the embassy of Morocco wrote to the university raising concerns about her being hosted.

Guardian Australia has confirmed the Moroccan embassy made representations to the Sydney Law School over its concerns about her speech at the school.

A former Spanish protectorate, Western Sahara is a disputed territory on the north-west coast of Africa, partly controlled by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) but largely occupied by Morocco. Morocco’s claims to the territory are largely unrecognised internationally: Western Sahara remains on the UN’s decolonisation list of non-self-governing territories.

Saleh, a human rights advocate who lives in a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria, spoke on human rights and decolonisation at the University of Sydney’s Peace and Conflict Studies Centre on 5 September, and was scheduled to speak at the law school on the “legal, political and human aspects” of the Western Sahara situation on 25 September.

Kamal Fadel, the Australian and New Zealand representative for Polisario – the liberation movement for Western Sahara – said Saleh’s speech had been planned for months when it was unilaterally cancelled by the university less than a fortnight before it was due to be hosted and without explanation or informing the organisers.

“We had friends ringing up saying the event had been cancelled, I thought it was a joke. We had been dealing with the university for months, planning this event, but then they would not explain why the event had been cancelled. We were astonished and very disappointed.”

Fadel said even if the event was cancelled for the reasons claimed by the university, the fact it was cancelled after Morocco had written to the law school about Saleh’s appearance gave rise to the impression that universities were susceptible to foreign influence.

“If a small country like Morocco, very far away, feels it can do these things, it sets a very dangerous precedent for other stronger powers. We hope this was not the case, but the fact that they [the Moroccan embassy] did send a letter, and the event was cancelled without any discussion creates a perception.

“We don’t think it’s right to have foreign influence on a great, independent university like the University of Sydney.”

In an email sent 12 September explaining the cancellation, the university said hosting two events featuring Saleh could create “an unfortunate perception that the university as a whole takes a particular position on relevant issues”. The email said the university regretted the cancellation and its preference would have been to hold a single event in conjunction with the Peace and Conflict Studies centre.

The University of Sydney has strongly defended its independence, saying the speech was cancelled solely for the reason that a second event appeared to be a duplication, or too similar, to justify being hosted at the same university.

“The event was not cancelled due to any external pressure.

“After discovering our department of Peace and Conflict Studies was hosting the same main speaker on campus just two-and-a-half weeks earlier, our Sydney Centre for International Law decided to cancel their event given the similarity in content,” a spokeswoman for the university said.

“If they had been made aware of the double-up earlier, the centre would have proposed a single jointly hosted event instead.”

The University of Sydney Law School confirmed it had received a letter from the Moroccan embassy “expressing concern about some of the wording in the event description on our website and hope the information presented at the event would be balanced”.

“We did not receive any requests to cancel the event.”

The spokeswoman said the university was “deeply committed to the expression and protection of free speech and academic freedom: this includes tolerance of a wide range of views, even when the views expressed might be controversial”.

Fadel said he did not accept the university’s position that the events were too similar.

“The speakers were different, the theme was different, the location was different. The Western Sahara issue is large and complex, and is able to be handled by different faculties at different times. This event was to discuss the legal aspects of the situation, which were not addressed last time in discussions about human rights issues.”

The issue of foreign influence – real or perceived – on Australian universities is of acute sensitivity currently, most particularly around foreign governments sponsoring research or institutes.

Advertised on the University of Sydney’s website and sponsored by its Centre for International Law, the Saleh event was sold out before it was cancelled, according to the Eventbrite page.

Guardian Australia has contacted the Moroccan embassy for comment.

Other academics and trade unions have written to the University of Sydney expressing their concern over the cancellation of Saleh’s speech. The event has been moved for the same time and date to the University of Technology Sydney.

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