Vox Populi from The McGill Tribune – By Zoë Miller-Vedam & Sabina Roan
What do the words “I am a McGill student” mean? As we receive our degrees from McGill, do we have an obligation to turn and question the hand that feeds us? If we plan to cash in on the name of our prestigious university, it stands to reason that we also carry some responsibility for the university’s actions and reputation. Do we have an obligation to ask questions? If we really care about the meaning of being a McGill student, we must be aware of the actions carried out under the auspices of McGill University.
As students, we have the power to do more than passively listen to lectures. The Students’ Society and other campus organizations demonstrate that we have a say in the evolution of our university. One of the motions passed at the most recent SSMU General Assembly was a mandate for the society to oppose any McGill involvement in the development of thermobaric weapons.
Unknown to many students, McGill has been collaborating on weapons research with U.S. military agencies since 1967. This has included contracts between McGill professors and agencies like the Department of National Defence and the U.S. Air Force, focussing specifically on thermobaric weapons technology research. Thermobaric weapons, also known as “fuel-air explosives,” maximize impact through direct explosive force as well as through extreme pressure and heat. This technology was first developed for use in the Vietnam War and is still being used today in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whereas conventional explosives kill and destroy by direct explosive force and fragmentation, thermobarics also create a large shock wave of pressure and heat, and consume all of the oxygen in the area of the explosion. As explained by Human Rights Watch, “[fuel-air explosives] are more powerful than conventional high-explosive munitions of comparable size, are more likely to kill and injure people in bunkers, shelters, and caves, and kill and injure in a particularly brutal manner over a wide area.”
McGill student action on the issue of thermobaric weapons research dates back more than 20 years. In 1988, escalating community protest culminated in the establishment of an official, if largely ineffective, procedure for the ethical evaluation of military research. Since this policy is barely enforced, and the research files were never made public, campus discourse continues to focus on transparency and ethical evaluation.
Student groups at McGill, such as Demilitarize McGill, are urging the university to increase transparency in current weapons research. This is a focal point of the debate, as increased transparency will provide visibility and accountability about what type of research is being done and how the information will be used. The objective is to create an open discussion about what is being done in the name of McGill. This discussion is crucial because we have a responsibility, as part of the McGill community, to be aware of the university’s impact on the world. Currently, McGill is drafting a new policy on academic research to replace the previous military research policy. The new policy will come before Senate on March 4, 2009. While this is a step in the right direction, it remains unclear whether the new policy will strengthen or hinder ethical evaluation of military research at McGill.
Students have a responsibility to understand what the title “McGill student” entails. Before we take our prestigious diploma and run with it, we need to educate ourselves about what’s going on behind closed doors at our own institution. And when we’re uncomfortable with what we find, it is our duty to speak up.
Zoë Miller-Vedam is a U1 economics and political science student, and Sabina Roan is a U1 environment student. Demilitarize McGill and the McGill Anti-Racist Coalition will host a public forum on transparency and ethics in military research this Friday at 5 p.m. in the Shatner Building’s Lev Bukhman room.