A talk at Oxford University featuring Graham Binns, the CEO of controversial private military company Aegis Defence Services, has been cancelled after student opposition.
Aegis Defence Services is a British private military contractor similar to the US mercenary company Blackwater. Aegis, founded in 2002 and often described as Britain’s “second largest military force”, has deployed private troops to Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones.
Aegis has been criticised by students who have linked the company to the alleged abuse of human rights. In 2006, an ex-Aegis employee posted clips described as “trophy videos” of private contract soldiers killing Iraqi civilians online. Oxford students cited this as a reason to protest a talk to which Binns was invited.
The invitation was issued by the international affairs graduate publication St Antony’s International Review (STAIR).
Puneet Dhaliwal, a Politics DPhil student and former military reform activist for the group War on Want, was among those who organised a protest against the talk. Dhaliwal told Cherwell he objected to STAIR’s lack of transparency about the event. He said, “The organisers of STAIR have not adequately responded to concerns raised about the event. They have instead disingenuously invoked notions of ‘academic freedom’ and ‘freedom of expression’, while remaining oblivious to the dearth of academic content in this event, the lack of balance provided with respect to theoretical and political perspectives on [private military security contractors], and the fact that companies like Aegis already enjoy a privileged platform in British politics.”
On Thursday, STAIR organisers abruptly cancelled the eighth week talk that featured Binns and deleted the Facebook event without public explanation.
Speaking to Cherwell, organisers expressed their disappointment that it had “become necessary” to cancel the event, citing a lack of “organisational or financial means to ensure the event could run as planned”.
“We wish to emphasise that we believe this event would have given Oxford students a platform to engage in a critical discussion with important stakeholders in the debate on private military and security companies,” the STAIR organising committee stated.
“STAIR wanted to provide an open forum for this discussion. Unfortunately, we can no longer guarantee that a free, fair and open discussion will be possible.”
The invitation had been heavily criticised on the event’s Facebook group. One student called it “deplorable”.
Another pointed out that only Binns and a Foreign and Commonwealth Office official would feature in a open-ended discussion examining private military contractors. They said, “This is not a topic for debate with ‘two sides’ unless we consider arguing for the collapse of democratic and humane oversight of warfare as a legitimate position.
“I urge a boycott of this event and public condemnation of all those participating in it.”
Another joked about getting a job with Aegis, writing on the event group, “I share your academic concern with grappling with the hard issues surrounding security in a twenty-first century geopolitical context…
“As Oxford graduate students, we enjoy a privileged position to make a real difference to securing the world’s resources.”
The academic billed to participate in the discussion, Dr Janina Dill, was unavailable for comment.
AEGIS did not respond to Cherwell’s request for comment.