Pressure is mounting on the president of the Oxford Union, Ben Sullivan, to stand down while he is investigated on allegations of rape. Several speakers, including Interpol secretary general Ronald Noble, have cancelled their commitments.
Sullivan was bailed two weeks ago while police investigate accusations of rape and attempted rape against him. He subsequently returned to his position as president. Student activists have now organised a boycott of the Union, contacting thirty upcoming speakers requesting they do not attend. Sullivan denies the allegations.
Mr Noble has abandoned his planned speech on 30 May. He said: “In my view, [Sullivan] should be guided by the best interests of his organisation. He should not be guided by his own interests. In this case my advice to Ben Sullivan would be either to resign or take a leave of absence until the criminal investigation has been completed.
“Interpol has attempted to contact the Oxford Union since reports of the allegations against Ben Sullivan first surfaced. We have received no response to our enquiries. Consequently I have decided to withdraw my participation as a speaker at the Oxford Union on Friday 30 May 2014.”
The president of Human Rights Watch, David Mepham, agreed yesterday to pull out, while Dragon’s Den judge Julie Meyer has postponed her speech. Other speakers contacted include Baroness Lawrence, A C Grayling, Paloma Faith, and the band Foster the People.
The campaigners released an open letter yesterday which also calls on Sullivan to stand down whilst the investigation is current. It has been signed by campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, journalist Laurie Penny, and the vice president for women at Oxford University Student Union, Sarah Pine. The letter was published in the New Statesman, but has since been taken offline for legal reasons.
Helena Dollimore, who organised the campaign alongside Pine, told The Independent: "We decided to organise the open letter and speaker boycott because we believe the current situation is untenable. It’s not about making a pronouncement of innocence or guilt; but about the principle that whilst still under investigation for sexual offences, an individual should not remain in a position of prestige.”
Sullivan has repeatedly protested his innocence, and is on bail until 18 June. In a statement to the Union last Thursday, he said: “Unfortunately I am not able to give any detailed comment on what is now an ongoing police investigation.
“As you may be aware no charges have been brought against me and I have the utmost faith in the police and Crown Prosecution Service and the British legal system as a whole. I know that sooner or later the truth will prevail and justice will be served.”
Members of the Union are debating the motion, ‘this House has no confidence in the President, Ben Sullivan’ on Thursday. Sullivan is not obliged to resign should the motion pass.
Aleksy Gaj, who proposed the motion, told student newspaper Cherwell: "I think he should step down due to his recent absences from the Union. I fear that his recent circumstances have left him unable to properly carry out his duties, and the fact that so many committee members have recently resigned stating a toxic atmosphere point towards a Union that has become increasingly chaotic and ungovernable under his watch."
The Oxford Union is one of the world’s oldest debating societies, and is widely considered a stepping-stone for a career in politics. Previous presidents include Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Tony Benn.