The foreign policy of students’ unions

Whether it’s Darfur, Iran or Afghanistan: how far is too far?

Last week, Jeff Rybak had a long, insightful post on this site about student politicians and the sticky situations they can get into when speaking on behalf of students on non-campus affairs. The question is generally the same regardless of the whether the topic is Darfur or Afghanistan: Should students’ unions advocate on social causes completely out of their area of influence? Do they need to have a foreign policy?

It can become awkward. Take last night at UBC’s Alma Mater Society (AMS) council meeting, where in response to the Iranian crisis, a motion was put forward expressing “that the AMS condemn the invasion of a learning space, and… support Iranian students and their right to academic freedom.”

A small group of Iranian students was in attendance, told their personal stories, and asked their student union to support them. The motion was specifically restricted to the brutalities that occurred at universities. At UBC, Iranian students make up the third largest group of international graduate students. A slam dunk, right?

Erm, no. Perhaps spurred by a passionate blog post by a fellow councillor, student after student sheepishly stood up and explained that they couldn’t support the motion as it was written, in fears of setting a bad precedent.

“I think everyone supports supporting finding a better way to support the students in Iran,” said one councillor, displaying the sort of verbosity one gets when trying to argue against condemning the deaths of hundreds of innocent students.

The consensus was that a symbolic motion carried no weight, but if there was something tangible that the student union could be done, it should be. For example, following the Tiananmen Square massacre, UBC’s student union in conjunction with a Chinese student group sponsored the creation of a “Goddess of Democracy” statue, which sits outside the Student Union Building and has been a rallying point for protests over the years. Of course, the problem with this approach is that giant marble statues are not exactly cheap.

But for now, the motion has been sent back down to committee level to find a compromise. If all goes according to plan, a meeting in the near future will have a new motion on Iran. And around in circles we go…