Tackling attacks on universities

University World News, March 7, 2016

On 20 January, four gunmen opened fire on students and staff at Bacha Khan University, Pakistan, killing more than 20 people and injuring dozens. The attack was attributed to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan – the group responsible for the December 2014 assault on Peshawar Army Public School that killed 145 people, including 132 students.

Just as tragic as the university attack is the fact that it is not isolated. Targeted attacks on higher education occur with chilling frequency around the world. An aerial attack on Aleppo University, Syria in January 2013; a suicide bombing by Boko Haram at the Federal College of Education in Kano, Nigeria in September 2014; and the massacre by al-Shabaab at Garissa University College, Kenya in April 2015, are but a few well-known examples. 

Education under Attack 2014, a report of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, documented attacks on higher education institutions, students and staff in 28 of the 30 countries that experienced a significant pattern of attacks between 2009 and 2012. 

The Scholars at Risk Network reported 111 incidents of killings, violence or disappearances targeting higher education personnel between 2011 and 2015. 

Silencing dissent

Motives for attacks on higher education vary. Universities are centres of critical thinking, research and debate, where values, belief systems and theories are formulated, discussed and disseminated. Students and professors play an important role in political movements and activism, making them targets of attacks aimed at repressing freedom of expression, silencing political protest and dissent and quashing the spread of opposed values. 

According to the Scholars at Risk Network, the Venezuelan government authorities reportedly arrested more than 300 students in anti-government protests in February 2014, subjecting many to abuse. Some 500 academics were killed in Iraq due to their prominent roles as educators and leaders in society between 2003 and 2012. 

Universities, as typically state institutions, are also soft, easy targets for anti-government groups. Furthermore, in countries including Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen, universities have been used by parties to conflict as barracks, bases, detention centres and for other military purposes, putting them at risk of attack by opposing forces.

Many of the above-mentioned motivations were seemingly behind the Bacha Khan University attack. The Tehrik-e-Taliban leader threatened that the group would attack “every educational institution that produces lawyers and judges who then run a… system repugnant to the existing Law of God [Sharia]”.

What can Pakistan and other governments do to better prevent and respond to attacks on higher education?

A framework for protecting higher education

States should affirm their long-established commitments under international law to protect higher education institutions, students and staff. The Principles of State Responsibility to Protect Higher Education from Attack encapsulate these commitments, asserting that states should:

  • Abstain from direct or complicit involvement in attacks on higher education;
  • Protect higher education against present and future attacks;
  • Assist victims of attacks; and
  • Deter future attacks, including by investigating attacks and holding perpetrators accountable.

States must do more than make statements of public support. They must undertake concrete measures to increase protection. States should:

  • Review national policies to ensure they protect universities from physical threats, intimidation and improper external influence, and implement protective measures. This should include endorsing and using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, which provide practical guidance on restricting the use of education institutions for military purposes.
  • Collect reliable data on attacks on education and military use of universities. Such data is critical for shaping protective programmes and policies to respond to attacks, and can serve as early warning systems when reports indicate a threat of attack.
  • Build robust accountability mechanisms that investigate attacks, hold perpetrators responsible and support victims. In Kenya, for example, referral mechanisms were implemented to assist victims in finding counselling and psychological services in the wake of the Garissa massacre.
  • Continue safe education during armed conflict. This involves preparing crisis contingency and risk reduction plans to mitigate harm from attacks, including providing alternative learning sites or opportunities. For example, in Zimbabwe, distance learning programmes have allowed lecturers outside the country, including Zimbabweans, to teach at the University of Zimbabwe, which has suffered capacity gaps due to professors having fled the country.
  • Act to prevent future attacks by adopting ‘conflict-sensitive’ education policies that build peace and tolerance rather than exacerbating inter-group tensions. This includes making higher education access and content more inclusive and equitable to all religious, ethnic and other identity groups, for example, by providing grants for disadvantaged populations. 

Commitments to implement all of these protective measures are included in the Safe Schools Declaration. The declaration was developed in 2015 in a process – headed by Norway and Argentina and supported by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack – to respond to attacks on education at all levels. 

While any strategy to prevent and respond to attacks must be tailored to the specific context and involve communities directly affected, the declaration provides a framework for developing an effective approach. Fifty-one states have endorsed the declaration, but Pakistan is not yet among them. 

Bacha Khan University reopened amid tight security in late January. As Pakistan continues to consider how it can restore safety to its schools and universities, a multi-faceted approach to protecting education – one that goes beyond security measures to incorporate the comprehensive set of strategies described above – will be necessary to guarantee all students their right to education. The next step for Pakistan is to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration.

Diya Nijhowne is director of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, an advocacy group comprised of UN and non-governmental organisations.