GLOBAL: Launch of Coalition to Protect Education

University World News, June 26, 2011

On the same day that three students were killed in raids by Syrian security forces on university dormitories in Damascus, a global coalition of UN, education and human rights agencies was launched last week to defend schools and universities against the growing threat of violent political and military attacks.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) is made up of an eight-member steering committee comprising the following UN agencies and NGOs: the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, Education Above All, Education International, Human Rights Watch, Save the Children International, UNESCO, UNHCR and UNICEF.

Speakers at the launch event, held at the International Institute of Education in New York, included Peter Wittig, German ambassador to the UN; Zama Coursen-Neff, Chair of GCPEA; Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Irina Bokova, Director-general, UNESCO; and Hilda Johnson, Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF. The event was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of France to the UN.

Coursen-Neff said: “In too many conflicts across the globe, education isn’t just caught in the crossfire: students, teachers, academics, schools and, universities are intentionally targeted by warring parties. Yet the extent of this phenomenon is only now being recognised, and far too little has been done to protect education in conflict so that schools and universities can be safe.”

The coalition was formed to highlight the incidence and impact of targeted attacks on education in conflict countries, strengthen existing monitoring and reporting systems, promote effective responses, encourage adherence to international law, and increase accountability for attacks.

Attacks on education are defined as any intentional threat or use of force – carried out for political, military, ideological, sectarian, ethnic, religious or criminal reasons – against students, teachers and other education personnel, and education institutions.

Coursen-Neff said not just schools but academics and universities were being targeted in conflict and in some instances their facilities were being used by warring parties.

Rob Quinn, Executive Director of the Scholars at Risk Network, which works to protect individuals and institutions at the higher education level, said attacks on higher education included not only violence associated with war, conflict and emergency situations but also coercive and often violent abuse of authority to squash inquiry, research and academic discourse.

“Scholars and student leaders are regularly restricted from travelling, have their unions interfered with, are detained without trial or after perfunctory proceedings, are sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, abused in custody and even killed, merely for expressing their opinions on important issues of the day.”

The Syrian incident is one of many examples reported in the international media in recent weeks. Syrian security forces raided dormitories at the same university where President Bashar Assad this week gave a speech on political reform after students refused to participate in pro-regime rallies, according to the Los Angeles Times. Witnesses and opposition activists said several people were killed and dozens were beaten or detained by security forces in the raid at Damascus University late on Tuesday.

Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, but who is currently in Egypt, told CNN that his organisation received complaints from dozens of college students across the country that they were forced to attend the rallies or face losing academic credits for the year.

Activists told the Los Angeles Times that students began protesting after a number of female students who were called to police stations for questioning had not returned to the dormitories by nightfall. The protesters clashed with security forces, who used live ammunition against them. The electricity to the dormitories was cut and beatings went on for hours in the darkness, they said.

In addition to the three killed, 21 students were reported injured, two of whom were in critical condition. An additional 130 students were reported to have been arrested.

On 12 June, Ayat al-Qarmezi, a poet and student studying for a teaching degree at the University of Bahrain, was sent to prison for over a year for reciting a poem critical of the regime in Bahrain, The Guardian reported. She turned herself in to the authorities in March after her brother received death threats from masked policemen at her parents’ house. While in custody the student was beaten and tortured with electric shocks, she told Amnesty International.

On 8 June, Maksud Sadikov, the principal of the Institute of Theology and International Relations in Mackhachkal, Dagestan, southern Russia, was shot dead along with his nephew, according to an AFP report. An expert on Wahhabism, he had publicly criticised radical Islamists and called for education to combat Islamic extremism.

On 5 June at least two students were killed and another injured when a bomb was exploded in a car park at the campus of Kandahar University, southern Afghanistan, shattering windowpanes in the surrounding buildings. A booby-trapped bike was also found at the same blast site and blew up as police tried to defuse it, Xinhua reported.

On 2 June, in Quetta, Pakistan, gunmen killed a senior university professor in a drive-by shooting, according to police. The gunmen, riding on a motorbike, sprayed Saba Dashtiari, an Urdu professor in the University of Balochistan, as he came out of the university building, The Nation reported.

Coursen-Neff said GCPEA is calling for monitoring of attacks on higher education, protection for targeted academics, and accountability for perpetrators. In 2011-12, the coalition expects to look at what measures are working in the field to protect education at all levels, and to promote restrictions on military use of education facilities that endanger the safety and education of those who learn and work there.

Quinn said the launch of the GCPEA presents an opportunity to improve protection of education at all levels.

“In higher ed, perhaps the biggest challenge is piercing the isolation that so many targeted scholars and students experience. The coalition will help existing advocates like Scholars at Risk work together to increase monitoring and information-sharing,” he said.

This would lead to better coordinated responses and greater awareness among policy-makers and the public of both the scope of the problem and the ways in which attacks on higher education cripple not only intellectual development, but the social, political and material development of a country as well, he said.

“By exposing these harms, the GCPEA will help fuel calls for action and positive change,” he said.

The UN Secretary-general’s 2011 Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict, published last month, documented an increasing trend of direct and physical damage to schools, closure of schools as a result of threats and intimidation, and military occupation of schools and use of schools as recruiting grounds for armed groups.

But so far there is no coordinated system for monitoring attacks on higher education, although Education International and scholar rescue organisations such as SAR, the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) and CARA, as well as University World News, frequently publish reports of attacks or alerts concerning the plight of academics facing threats of or actual violence.

Last year a UNESCO study, Education under Attack 2010*, found there was a persistent pattern of attacks on higher education in range of countries, including assassinations, abductions and torture. It found 71 academics and 37 students were killed in Iraq in a two-and-a-half-year reporting period. In Colombia the rector of the country’s largest university, National University, Bogotá, reported in 2008 that the institution had received 312 death threats from paramilitaries.

The motives for attacks on academics worldwide varied between incidents and between countries. But common themes were attempts to silence critics, control the content of research, prevent political plurality, and assimilate or exclude minorities or particular ethnic groups.

In 2009 an SRF study, Scholar Rescue in the Modern World, called for a UN convention to protect scholars from harassment, imprisonment and violence and documented many incidents of attacks, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East.