Attacking Education a War Tactic Globally, Study Shows

Middle East and North Africa Highly Impacted
Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, February 26, 2014

(New York, February 27, 2014) – Schools and universities, as well as students, teachers and academics are intentionally targeted for attack in conflicts worldwide, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack said in a 250 page study released today. Education Under Attack 2014 identifies 30 countries (see map) where there was a pattern of deliberate attacks between 2009 and 2013, including 11 in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Turkey and Yemen.

“Schools, students and staff are not just caught in the crossfire but are all too often the targets of attacks,” said Diya Nijhowne, director of the Global Coalition. “They are bombed, burned, shot, threatened and abducted precisely because of their connection to education. They are soft, easy targets, and states and armed groups need to protect them from being used as a tactic of war.”

Both armed non-state groups and national military and security forces are attacking education to advance their own interests, the Global Coalition said. They may be retaliating against a community’s perceived support for the opposition; seeking to demonstrate a lack of government control by harming schools and teachers, symbols of the state; attacking forces based in or using a school building; or opposing the spread of ideas deemed to be objectionable, such as the education of girls.

“Attacks on education in the last five years have killed hundreds of students, teachers, and academics and injured many more,” Nijhowne said. “Hundreds of thousands of students have been denied the right to an education when their schools and universities have been intentionally damaged or destroyed or used for military purposes.”

The conflicts in Syria and Libya provide grave examples. In September 2013, a fuel-air bomb dropped in a government air strike landed on a high school in Raqqa, killing 14 students and the school janitor. In Libya during the 2011 uprising against the Gaddafi regime, there were at least 27 documented intentional attacks on schools, mostly carried out by the government forces and opposition forces led by the National Transitional Council, and affecting more than 14,000 children.

In 25 of the 30 countries profiled in the study, including seven in the MENA region (see map), warring parties took over schools in whole or part, using them as bases, barracks, firing positions, weapons caches, and for other purposes. Roughly 1,000 schools in Syria have allegedly been used as detention and torture centers by government forces. The opposition Free Syrian Army has also allegedly used schools as bases, makeshift hospitals, detention centers, and for ammunition storage. Buildings that should have been safe spaces for learning became actual battlefields when military use made them a target for attack. Yemini government airstrikes targeted nine schools in Abyan, for example, after militants linked to Al-Qaeda had used them for military purposes.

The Global Coalition also examined assaults on higher education, which have been monitored less than attacks on elementary and secondary schools. Colleges, universities and individual students and academics were attacked in 28 of the 30 profiled countries (see map), including 10 in MENA. The aim was often to restrict political protest or control knowledge and research in sensitive areas.

From 2009-2012, government security forces arrested more than 1,000, killed more than 15, and injured more than 450 university students in Sudan, mostly during demonstrations on campus in education-related protests. On November 24, 2011, Sudanese security forces raided the offices of an AIDS prevention group at Al Gezira University that had just carried out a survey on the prevalence of HIV and AIDS. The members were released later in the day, but all reports and data related to the survey were confiscated and the research was suspended.

Academics and researchers were targets of attack in both Iraq and Iran.  In Iraq, 26 academics reportedly have been killed since 2009, and last year, the president of Diyala University survived an assassination attempt that killed two of his bodyguards. On January 12, 2010, a remote-controlled bomb attached to the motorcycle of a 50-year-old physicist at Tehran University detonated as he was heading to work, killing him instantly. It was one of several deadly attacks on specialists in Iran in the areas of physics and engineering.

Between 2009 and 2012, the Global Coalition found, students and educators were most at risk in 13 countries. In heavily affected countries, such as Iran, Israel/Palestine, Libya and Yemen, there were reports of at least 500 attacks, or at least 500 education-related victims, or education buildings used for military purposes. In very heavily affected countries, such as Sudan and Syria, there were 1000 or more attacks or victims.

In compiling the data, the Global Coalition relied mainly on information provided by the United Nations, respected human rights organizations and the media. The Global Coalition also interviewed country experts and commissioned some research locally. Education Under Attack 2014 follows two reports by UNESCO, in 2007 and 2010.

The Global Coalition also explored ways of protecting education. These include:  investigating attacks and prosecuting perpetrators; negotiating with belligerent parties to respect schools as safe zones; ending the use of schools and teachers for electoral tasks in conflict areas; ensuring equitable access of different identity groups to education; and improving curricula to address perceptions that education is biased and to build respect for diversity.

In particular, the Global Coalition called for widespread adoption of the Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. The Guidelines draw on international human rights and humanitarian law as well as good practice to preserve education as a sanctuary in conflict.