Kashmiri scholar and team win this year’s Weidenfeld Hoffmann debate at Oxford Union

A Kashmiri scholar was one among the four Weidenfeld Hoffmann scholars at Oxford Union in the United Kingdom who won this year’s debate on ‘social media has no right to ban politicians’.

Derived from the Oxford Union debating society of Oxford University, Oxford-style debating is a competitive debate format featuring a sharply assigned motion that is proposed by one side and opposed by another.

The speakers include Mirza Saaib Bég (Kashmir), Nandita Venkatesan (India), Tafadzwa Matika (Zimbabwe), Andrés Ordoñez-Buitrago (Colombia) and the opposition team speaking against the motion include Sarani Jayawardena (Sri Lanka), Samuel Diaz Pulgar (Venezuela), Kai Bridgewater (Jamaica), Melissa Penagos (Colombia).

The Weidenfeld Hoffmann scholarship is a prestigious scholarship that covers all costs of education at the University of Oxford including living expenses, accommodation costs, travel support and a monthly stipend. Selected scholars are required to participate in various elements of the programme such as enterprise challenge, leadership programme, moral philosophy training, pro-bono projects and the annual scholars’ debate. The Leadership Programme aims to cultivate the leaders of tomorrow by providing outstanding university graduates a comprehensive training in public speaking, leadership development, long-term mentoring and networking.

This year, the scholars’ debate was organized at the Oxford Union. The Oxford Union is a 200-year-old debating society that is regarded to be the world’s foremost debating society, allowing inquisitive members to hear new ideas and debate the issues of the day.

The Oxford Union has a tradition of hosting some of the world’s most prominent individuals across politics, academia and popular culture, including US Presidents like Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton; British Prime Ministers like Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and Theresa May; Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan;and Performerslike Morgan Freeman, Sir Elton John and Michael Jackson. Benazir Bhutto and Victoria Schofield’s friendship was forged in the Oxford Union Debating Chamber when Benazir was a student at Oxford and served as president of the Oxford Union.

The Weidenfeld Hoffmann Scholars’ Debate has been a key element of the leadership programme offered by the scholarship. Last week Facebook’s oversight board upheld the ban on Donald Trump and the debate motion focussed on this issue. The motion for the debate was: This house believes that social media has no right to ban politicians.

During the debate, Mirza stressed the need for “preventing an encroachment of our rights by outsourcing the job of dispensing justice to private companies”. He added that “this proposal will create an opaque system that is making judgments on a public conversation. And these judgments are not guided by a sense of equity or justice but by power and profit. This is how oppression works and authoritarians function- they use an exceptional situation of emergency to justify gaining more power and then normalise the use of that authority in everyday life, even when that emergency does not exist.”

Tafadzwa Matika gave historical examples of how outsourcing justice to private companies has resulted in human rights violations, relying on the examples East India Company and others that furthered colonization.

Manuel Francisco Azeuro, a WH Scholar from Columbia stresses on the benefits of debating- “Debating is a critical inquiry of humans’ viewpoints and a powerful rejection of perfection. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Free Speech Debate project of St Antony’s College, “we cannot get at the truth unless we are exposed to the relevant facts, opinion and arguments.” Debating allows us to address the fallibility of the ‘opposing’ views but also, if the spirit of the exercise is fully embraced, the fallibility of our own, because we are forced to reflect on the consistency and coherence of our positions.” Prior to joining the University of Oxford, Manuel was an Acting Mayor in Columbia.

Speaking after the debate Mirza commented that “human rights cannot be subject to terms and conditions. Freedom of expression includes the freedom to receive information, and this is a basic human right. Social media companies want people to believe that accepting their terms and conditions gives them the right to decide on our human rights. Such terms and conditions are void ab initio.”

Mirza is a graduate of India’s premier law university, NALSAR University of law. He graduated as President of the students’ union and was a recipient of the Vice Chancellor’s gold medal as the Best Male Graduate with Leadership Qualities. Earlier this year, he was awarded the Oxford- Weidenfeld- Hoffmann scholarship to study public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.


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