Under fire: bearing witness to assaults on the academy
A report on global attacks on education also proposes ways to protect the sector
Times Higher Education, March 13, 2014
From abduction and arbitrary arrest to assassination: a new report offers the most comprehensive picture to date of the sheer scale of assaults inflicted on universities, their students and staff around the world.
Education under Attack 2014, which was launched in New York on 27 February, is an overview of the period from January 2009 to September 2013, and follows on from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation reports released in 2007 and 2010.
It is published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), which brings together Unesco, other UN agencies and a range of children’s, human rights and educational charities including the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, the Scholar Rescue Fund and Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict.
“Earlier versions were published by Unesco before the coalition – of which it was an originating member – existed,” says Diya Nijhowne, director of the GCPEA. “It seemed natural for us to take over, as it’s not an issue which resonates just with Unesco but covers the gamut of a wide range of organisations. It’s also quite a sensitive issue, so it is good to have a range of organisations behind it and showing they are concerned, rather than just one.”
Although the bulk of the information was compiled through the media, earlier reports and online research, continued Ms Nijhowne, “all the organisations were involved in reviewing the information and providing further information, including researchers in the field such as Human Rights Watch”. It can claim to be more comprehensive than its predecessors, not only because “significantly more resources were employed to undertake the research” but because it now includes not only “the military use of education buildings and facilities” but also attacks on higher education.
The focus of the report is physical attacks on buildings and violence, or threats of violence, to individuals. It does not include, for example, government infringements of academic freedom or discriminatory hiring policies, which are not only objectionable in themselves but can often feed into a climate of fear. Yet, despite these restrictions, it offers an unprecedented and very sobering picture of the global threats to education from nursery schools up to universities.
Students on the front line
Attacks on higher education, say the report’s authors, “were carried out both by government armed forces, security forces or police and by armed non-state groups, including guerrillas, rebels, paramilitaries and militias”.
Most serious was the situation in six countries – Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria – “where reports documented 1,000 or more attacks on schools, universities, staff and students or 1,000 or more students, teachers or other education personnel attacked or education buildings attacked or used for military purposes”.
In many of these places, students were on the front line. In Sudan, for example, at least 15 students were reported killed, 479 were injured and well over 1,000 were arrested or detained, usually in response to demonstrations. In 2012 at Omdurman Islamic University in Khartoum alone, 450 student rooms were set on fire in an attack allegedly carried out by security agents and representatives of the National Congress Party.
Equally horrifying was an incident in 2011 in Mogadishu, Somalia when a suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with drums of fuel outside the education and other ministries. Many students and parents, who were gathered there to obtain exam results that could lead to foreign scholarships, were among the 100 or more fatalities. The bomber’s prerecorded message specifically singled out those who wanted to study abroad.
The six “worst” countries form part of a group of 30, each profiled separately in the report, which had “five or more incidents or victims including at least one direct attack on a school or university or the killing of at least one teacher, student or academic”.
In 28 of these countries, the figures included attacks on higher education facilities, students and academics or the military use of universities – and even the two exceptions, Mali and the Central African Republic, in Ms Nijhowne’s view, may only have been omitted because of reporting failures.
In 24 of the countries, school or university facilities were used for military purposes, with all the disruption and danger this inevitably brings to those working and studying there. And university buildings and infrastructure were targeted in 17 of the countries. Among the most serious incidents were the attacks by security forces on student dormitories recorded in seven of the 30 countries, with one night-time raid on Yobe State College of Agriculture in Nigeria last September resulting in the deaths of as many as 50 students. Similar episodes have occurred during the continuing conflict in Syria.
Despite a significant overlap in the places where schools and universities are endangered, the authors of Education under Attack 2014 also point to some important distinctions in the form this takes. Violent assaults on higher education, they suggest, “frequently take place in non-conflict situations – although they do also occur in countries affected by war – and more often involve arbitrary arrest, detention or persecution of particular students and teachers”.
This is partly because universities, their students and staff are more often perceived as a direct threat by repressive regimes than schoolchildren and their teachers.
Many attacks on higher education, the report continues, “are linked to government attempts to prevent the growth of opposition movements; restrict political protests, including those related to education policy; stop anti-government protests on campus; quell education trade union activity; or curtail the freedom of lecturers and researchers to explore or discuss sensitive subjects or alternative views to government policy. As with violence against schoolchildren and teachers, attacks on higher education can also involve sectarian bias and targeting of ethnic groups.” Perhaps most surprising was the 2011 bombing of six Mexican campuses and laboratories by a group said to be opposed to research in nanotechnology.
Taken as a whole, the report offers “evidence of very high or high levels of attack on education compared with the periods covered by the previous two Education under Attack studies published in 2010 and 2007”, although Ms Nijhowne acknowledges that it is hard to tell whether this is a result of genuinely deteriorating conditions or “improved research methods and improved reporting around the world as the issues have come to the forefront”.
While acknowledging the gravity of the situation, Education under Attack 2014 puts forward a number of accountability measures to help universities continue to function safely.
The UN Security Council resolution 1998, passed in 2011, led to the creation of a “Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on grave violations against children in situations of armed conflict”. This could, and should, be extended to urgently needed monitoring of attacks on higher education, which would help push the issue up the human rights agenda, Ms Nijhowne suggested.
Also promising are the Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, created by the GCPEA and released in draft form last June, where “the intention is that when a state adopts the Guidelines they will incorporate them into their domestic legislation and military doctrine”.
“There are states which are interested in participating in future meeting to solidify a process in an endorsement ceremony,” added Ms Nijhowne.
“We are hoping to get a threshold of states to make it very clear that [military occupation] is unacceptable and that they are going to prevent it within their own country and persuade other countries to take action, developing a standard whereby it’s unacceptable for states to use schools and universities for military purposes.”