Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack

Newsletter: January 13, 2014

Message from the Director

At GCPEA, as the New Year begins, we are focusing on an issue that has received little public attention: attacks on higher education facilities and personnel. In every region of the world, harassment and repression is directed at college students and campuses, as well as professors and administrators. Universities are bombed. Students and staff study under the threat of assassinations, arrest, and torture.

Just one year ago this week, on January 15, 2013, 80 people, mostly students, died when explosions targeted the University of Aleppo. An additional 200 were severely injured. The attack occurred while students were taking their exams, guaranteeing devastation.

In 2013, attacks with high casualties also occurred at universities and colleges in Nigeria and Pakistan, to name just a couple countries. On June 21, a suicide bomber blew herself up on a school bus carrying students of Sardar Bahadur Khan Women's University in Quetta, Pakistan. Fourteen women were killed in the attack, according to the BBC News. In Nigeria, on September 29, armed gunmen from the group Boko Haram, stormed a dormitory at Yobe State College of Agriculture, killing sleeping students and rounding up others for execution. By the end of the massacre, at least 40 students were dead.

Tragic events like these not only kill and injure people, and damage and destroy buildings and infrastructure, but also take an enormous psychological toll on students, professors, and communities. Attacks on higher education undermine academic freedom, social progress, and learning. Universities are where teachers are trained, curriculum developed, and research conducted. Denying these functions vastly decreases the capacity of primary and secondary schools to function, as well as other social institutions.

Our new report, Institutional Autonomy and the Protection of Higher Education from Attack, released last month, suggests that one way to keep universities safe from attack is to complement strong campus security systems with policies that maintain the freedom of academics and students to teach, research, and write what they wish, unrestricted by physical interference or coercion. It further contends that the primary responsibility for these activities belongs to the governments in countries where attacks occur. Also in December, as a follow up to the report, GCPEA convened an expert roundtable of higher education networks to develop a set of principles to encourage states to clearly and publicly recognize their existing obligations under international law to protect higher education.

Another major concern is that armed forces and armed groups frequently take over university campuses to use as bases, barracks, detention centers, and weapons caches. For example, in 2010, in Bajaur Agency, Pakistan, the army and paramilitary Frontier Corps reportedly took up positions at a university and refused to leave. Likewise, for six months in 2011, Yemeni armed forces used the Superior Institute for Health Science, a tertiary institution, as barracks and a firing position, including while classes were in session. A 60-year-old man was shot and killed when he arrived at the Institute to enroll his son in classes.

The Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict is one tool that can be used to curtail this problem. By incorporating the Guidelines into their legislation and military doctrine, governments and armed forces can better ensure that campuses are not infiltrated by soldiers or converted into armories, severely disrupting learning and transforming them into targets for attack by opposing forces.

The Lucens Guidelines and the nascent principles to protect higher education are important measures that can contribute to safeguarding the ability of students, teachers, and professors to study, teach and conduct research without fear. We hope that their implementation will contribute to a safer, more peaceful 2014.

Best wishes for the New Year. 

Diya Nijhowne


In this Newsletter:

  • Protecting Higher Education by Ensuring University Security and Autonomy
  • Expert Meeting on State Responsibility for Protecting Higher Education
  • Galvanizing Support to Protect Schools and Universities from Military Use
  • Education Cannot Wait
  • Spotlight on Affiliates: The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe
  • GCPEA in the Media

Protecting Higher Education by Ensuring University Security and Autonomy

Last month, we released the study Institutional Autonomy and the Protection of Higher Education from Attack, which explores one way to protect university students and faculty from violence and harassment. The study argues that states can keep higher education safe by allowing students and academics to study, teach, research, and write without interference by the state or non-state groups. Clearly, governments themselves should not repress university personnel by arresting them arbitrarily or targeting them for killing, or by threatening them with these consequences—but they must also take action to prevent others from committing these violations. When states or non-state groups exert violent or coercive influence over higher education, the university becomes politicized, placing it centrally in the line of fire, creating a battlefield on which wider political and social conflicts are violently fought, and possibly triggering further attacks.

One case the report explores is Pakistan. The violence directed at professors in that country illustrates how higher education is often caught in the crossfire of political, sectarian, and ethnic conflicts. In Balochistan province, for example, Baloch national separatists have targeted non-Baloch figures for violence. The report describes the assassination of Nazima Talib, a professor of mass communications killed outside Balochistan University, in Quetta. In claiming responsibility, the Baloch Liberation Army said they targeted the female, Punjabi academic in retaliation for, and to highlight, the mistreatment of Baloch women. Attacks like these also occur in other parts of Pakistan. Just two months ago, in November 2013, Syed Shabbir Hussain Shah, a Shiite professor at the University of Gujarat in Punjab province was shot, along with his driver, on the way to work. The Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility. As with Professor Talib, the assassination was motivated by political revenge—in this case, in response to Shiite-Sunni clashes that had killed eight people over the weekend.

GCPEA’s study concludes by arguing that states are best positioned to prevent attacks like these and to protect the tertiary sector by ending repression of higher education faculty, staff and students; preventing others from targeting higher education and prosecuting those that do; and by developing security systems for protecting universities that are comprehensive, effective, and do not restrict university autonomy.

Expert Meeting on State Responsibility for Protecting Higher Education

To further develop the conclusions of the study on Institutional Autonomy and a plan to carry them forward, GCPEA, in collaboration with the Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe (UNICA), hosted a meeting in Brussels on December 12-13, which brought together higher education stakeholders such as university presidents and administrators, student unions, and European, African and Arab university associations. Representatives of governments also attended. 

(below) Participants from the expert meeting in Brussels, December 2013

Participants from the expert meeting in Brussels, December 2013

Over the course of two days, the group discussed the threats faced by academics, the often limited means of recourse available to them in their own countries, and the need for a set of principles on state responsibility to ensure that higher education remains ‘off-limits’ to violence and coercion. Participants began outlining these principles, which will draw upon existing international law and standards to remind states of their obligations to abstain from physically intimidating higher education institutions, leadership, academic and professional staff, and students, as well as to take action to prevent non-state actors from perpetrating these violations and to hold them accountable if they do. Finally, the group also considered strategies for reducing the severity and incidence of attacks on higher education communities by increasing awareness of the problem and delegitimizing the use of force against university-affiliated persons and campuses. In 2014, GCPEA intends to continue developing these principles and to advocate for support for them by higher education associations, networks, unions, and universities, as well as by state governments and interstate bodies.

Galvanizing Support to Protect Schools and Universities from Military Use

Since they were published in June, GCPEA has been promoting the Draft Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict (now also available in French, Spanish, Arabic, and Japanese) through meetings with officials in state capitals and at diplomatic missions and with local civil society organizations.

The Draft Guidelines have received substantial attention in UN settings. In September, the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC) raised the Guidelines in her oral report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, noting “progress” in protecting schools during armed conflict. She encouraged Member States to “endorse and promote the Lucens Guidelines and introduce concrete changes to better protect schools from military use in their legislation, military doctrine, and manuals and relevant military training.” Zerrougui also mentioned the Guidelines in her written report to the General Assembly in October, describing the Guidelines and, again, strongly urging governments to support them.

And at the debate of the UN Social Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee on October 16, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, and Germany referred positively to the Lucens Guidelines. For example, Switzerland “welcome[ed] guidelines to protect schools from military use,” and Germany asked all Member States to support the Guidelines.

Furthermore, we have collaborated with Human Rights Watch to produce a video highlighting military use of schools and showing how the presence of soldiers, weapons, and military supplies inside schools impacts students and teachers. The video includes pictures and clips from across the world of schools being used for barracks, firing positions, and detention centers and argues that it is time to return the schools to the students.

Finally, in December, at a workshop held at Princeton University by the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, GCPEA presented on the topic of attacks on schools at a panel, and highlighted our work developing the Draft Lucens Guidelines. Attendees were primarily representatives from the missions of Security Council members, and from states that are part of the Group of Friends for Children and Armed Conflict.

In the coming year, GCPEA will continue to seek endorsement of the Guidelines by states and to plan for their finalization and launch.

Education Cannot Wait

As a member of Education Cannot Wait, we have been actively promoting the protection of education in several forums over the past several months. On September 23, during the UN General Assembly meetings in New York, Education Cannot Wait held a high level meeting where speakers included: Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, UNESCO Director General, Irina Bokova, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education, Alice Albright, and Tove Wang, CEO of Save the Children Norway.  A panel was dedicated to the topic of attacks on education, with Leila Zerrougui, the SRSG-CAAC, Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court prosecutor, and Heikki Holmås, the Norweigian Minister of International Development speaking on the issue. In his remarks, Holmås emphasized the importance of efforts to protect education and highlighted the Lucens Guidelines as a tool for doing so, stating that Norway, “would like to encourage states and military groups to endorse the guidelines – all children and schools are protected under international law already, but we know too well that those obligations do not carry enough weight.” He emphasized, “The guidelines will give a tangible meaning to real protection.”

Spotlight on Affiliates

GCPEA has 81 affiliates in 31 countries. All affiliates are asked to sign on to GCPEA’s mission, vision, and goals. The information in this section is based on an interview with one of our affiliates: The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe.

The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) was formed in 1997 and registered in 1999 as a trade union representing approximately 15,000 primary, secondary, and tertiary teachers and educators. The union is committed to improving teaching conditions in Zimbabwe, and the majority of its activities include lobbying for improved salaries and work conditions, reviewing curricula, and training its members in paralegal skills, research methods, and human rights.

According to PTUZ, political violence in Zimbabwe has extensive impacts on all levels of education. The group claims that the country’s teachers, lecturers, and students teach and learn under threat of arrest, abduction, torture, or assassination by police and state-sanctioned youth militias. Schools and colleges have become militarized environments. Youth militias coerce secondary school students to join military drills. Militia bases have been established in schools and near school premises. PTUZ states that militias, war veterans, and political party members tend to intervene on campus at schools and universities with some regularity, harassing students, particularly student leaders, forcing them to join political parties, and engaging them in spying on their professors. Such events tend to intensify during election periods. For example, according to PTUZ, the period leading up to the most recent elections in July 2013 saw the establishment of militia bases in or near schools throughout the country, and youth militia leaders invaded two schools following the elections, accusing them of having voted for the opposition party. The schools have since been closed indefinitely.

These conditions reportedly severely affect educational access and quality, and the psychological wellbeing of students and teachers. They disrupt lessons temporarily during political rallies or military drills, as well as permanently, particularly for university student leaders, who are arrested, expelled and may have trouble re-enrolling. Quality of teaching suffers under self-censorship, and rather than being safe and protective environments, schools and universities become sources of psychological distress and insecurity. PTUZ reports that the percent of secondary students who pass their exams has declined from 87% in the late 1980s to less than 17% today.

PTUZ is actively engaged in trying to prevent and respond to attacks on education. The union has attempted to appeal to law enforcement agents, created Voluntary Teacher-Student-Parent Defense Units which work together to ensure a safe environment for effective learning and teaching, and assisted teachers in relocating to stay in safe houses until conflict subsides. They also lobby the government to create laws and regulations that will ensure schools are politics-free zones. In addition, PTUZ has published reports on attacks on teachers and schools, and trained teachers as human rights defenders, in conflict resolution, management and prevention through manuals they produce.

Despite these efforts to protect education from attack, challenges in a highly polarized and partisan environment have made it difficult to develop regulations to protect education. According to PTUZ, the perpetrators of attacks on schools enjoy some immunity from prosecution and are rarely held to account. The July 2013 elections were particularly damaging because of the degree to which they politicized and militarized the schools and universities.

Nevertheless, PTUZ cites some positive developments. Among these, the union has been relatively successful in some areas of the country in encouraging dialogue between communities and teachers as well as negotiations to keep schools open and operational. And preparing for the future, lobbying by the union has led to the development of a policy document that, although not yet adopted, can serve as a basis for a law ensuring that schools remain politics-free zones.

GCPEA in the Media

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) was established in 2010 by organizations from the fields of education in emergencies and conflict-affected fragile states, higher education, protection, international human rights, and international humanitarian law who were concerned about ongoing attacks on educational institutions, their students, and staff in countries affected by conflict and insecurity.

For more information, please contact us at or visit our website at