GLOBAL: Education under attack

A noticeable rise in targeted attacks on education staff, students and institutions in a number of countries constitutes a highly damaging assault on the provision of and access to education in the places worst affected. The dramatic increase in deliberate attacks in recent years and the subsequent loss of life are the result of an abhorrent tactic of sacrificing the lives of innocent young people and those trying to help them develop their potential for the sake of political or ideological aims.

Traditional policies for preventing attacks have included providing armed guards or escorts to schools and colleges or providing weapons training for teachers. But in many places these provisions do not exist, or do not appear to have made sufficient impact on their own. Other methods being encouraged include providing monitoring and warning systems, mobilising communities to confront attackers and relocating classes or providing distance learning.

Recent international efforts to press for the application of human rights instruments on issues related to children in armed conflict, which have focused mostly on the recruitment of child soldiers, could be broadened. There is a strong case for working to embed protection of teachers and academics within human rights law and focusing application of existing instruments on protection for schools, colleges and universities - and the education process.

A significant obstacle to preventing attacks may be that parties in conflicts often believe education is not neutral. For instance, the provision of good-quality education may be denied to particular groups, or it may appear that an alien culture, language or religion is being imposed on them. A serious challenge now in conflict-affected countries is to move to a position where schools, colleges and universities can be accepted as safe sanctuaries and shielded from military and political violence.

This would involve creating student-friendly, inclusive educational institutions, run transparently and free from sectarianism and political interference, that would give all sides a stake in their protection - plus advocacy work with armed parties and local communities.

Schools, colleges and universities could then become zones of peace promoting tolerance and understanding and, in so doing, aid efforts to resolve the wider conflict. If the international community is serious about attempts to achieve Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals on education, it should focus attention urgently on these issues and provide the political will and resources required to tackle this growing problem.

A number of recommendations flow from the findings and analyses presented in the report Education Under Attack*, notably the following:

* The UN should work with member states to eradicate impunity in the case of attacks on education staff, students, trade unionists, officials and institutions.

* Greater resources should be given to the International Criminal Court to bring more cases to trial to widen its deterrent effect.

* Governments should use every opportunity to set conditions of adherence to human rights norms, with particular reference to the rights of children, the right to education and protection of both educational institutions and the process of education when entering trade or aid agreements with parties to a conflict.

* UN agencies, NGOs and teacher unions should campaign for international solidarity with targeted groups and institutions to raise pressure for human rights instruments to be applied more widely to attacks on education and for impunity to be eradicated. Further debate is also required on how to make the case for embedding protection of education institutions as zones of peace or safe sanctuaries in human rights instruments.

* The UN Security Council should recognise the role that education can play in contributing to tension and in promoting peace, and should offer support for strategies to remove education as a factor in conflicts.

* Governments and parties to conflict should work to ensure education is perceived as neutral by ensuring schools, colleges and universities are transparently run in an inclusive, non-sectarian and non-discriminatory way, and that curricula are non-propagandist and sensitive to local linguistic, cultural and religious specificities.

* The international community, UN agencies and NGOs should devise strategies and campaigns to promote and fund inclusive child-friendly education in conflict-affected countries and establish acceptance of schools as sanctuaries or zones of peace.

* The international community, UN agencies and NGOs should work with governments of conflict-affected states and governments that are assisting in preventing or limiting conflict to:
- develop mechanisms to protect threatened students, teachers, academics, education trade unionists and officials, and to assist them in relocating internally or externally where appropriate;
- develop ways to support the continuation of education in alternative places or via alternative methods and media in areas under attack;
- develop ways to support the continuation of the work of academics in exile for the education system under attack

Recognising the limitations of the current reporting system, as shown by the Office of the Special Representative to the Secretary General on Children in Armed Conflict, the United Nations should demonstrate its commitment to the right to education by setting up a global system for monitoring violent attacks on education, including attacks on teachers and academics, and support the establishment of a publicly accessible, global database to keep track.

Attacks on education often escape international attention amid the general fighting in conflict-affected countries. But the number of reported assassinations, bombings and burnings of school and academic staff and buildings has risen dramatically in the past few years, reflecting the increasingly bloody nature of local conflicts around the world.

Accurate global figures do not exist for the number of teachers, students or officials killed each year, or for other types of attack such as abductions, torture and threats of violence, nor are there accurate global figures for the number of attacks on schools, universities and education offices.

But there are specific figures for the number of incidents in particular countries and territories, and they suggest that the worst-affected in the past five years include Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Nepal, the Palestinian Autonomous Territories, Thailand and Zimbabwe; in all cases except Nepal the conflict is ongoing.

The pattern of unreported incidents, however, might tell a different story. It appears impossible to make comparisons with incident rates in previous decades, or in other sectors, because of lack of available data. It may be that attacks on education rise and fall according to the extent of wider conflict.

Nevertheless in 2006, the Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict warned the UN that schools, places that should be safe havens for children, have "increasingly become the prime target of attacks by armed parties".

Moreover in a number of countries, the bombing of universities and education offices and targeted killing of teachers and academics have become the favoured tactics of fighting groups. Reported incidents in some of the worst-affected countries are presented below.

Afghanistan: A Human Rights Watch report documented 204 attacks on teachers, students and schools in 18 months from January 2005 to June 2006; Amnesty International reported that 75 students, teachers and other school staff were killed in attacks in 2005 to 2006. In 2005, there were 11 explosions, 50 burnings and one missile attack aimed at education targets, rising in 2006 to 18 explosions, 66 burnings and two missile attacks, and 37 reported threats.

Colombia: On average, 42 teachers are murdered every year in Colombia. A report from the Federación Colombiana de Educadores (Fecode) lists 310 murders of teachers between 2000 and 2006. Other Fecode documents list 27 murders of teachers in 1999.

Between 1999 and 2001, a further 13 teachers and school employees were kidnapped or 'disappeared' (this term denotes detained incommunicado, without acknowledgement, possibly killed). In 2003, it was reported that 11,000 irregular combatants were child soldiers, mostly recruited between the ages of seven and 13.5 years.

Democratic Republic of the Congo: In November 2003 in Walikale territory, UN assessors found all schools had been seriously damaged, many completely pillaged and destroyed in fighting. In Djugu, 211 schools out of 228 were destroyed between 1999 and 2004.
One health centre in Kibirizi recorded 174 cases of rape, allegedly by soldiers, between July
2005 and May 2006, and in 80% of incidents the victims were girls.

Iraq: 280 academics, including 186 university professors, have been killed since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003; 296 education staff members were killed in 2005 and 180 teachers were killed between February and November 2006. More than 100 university students were killed in one month in January 2007. In November 2006, armed gunmen in police uniforms kidnapped 100 men from the Ministry of Education. Some hostages were freed the next day, others were found dead.

Liberia: In 1999, it was reported that thousands of children had been abducted and given guns to fight, and there were many reports of attacks on schools but no specific numbers; 11,780 children were demobilised from the fighting forces after the war.

Myanmar: In 2002, there were an estimated 70,000 child soldiers, many of them enlisted in the national army, some forcibly recruited as young as age 11.

Nepal: 145 teachers and 344 students were killed in the decade to December 2006. In the five years to December 2006, the Maoists destroyed 79 schools, one university and 13 district education offices. In the same five-year period, 10,621 teachers were abducted and 29 teachers were 'disappeared' while numerous others were arrested or tortured, 320 were beaten, 356
threatened, and 41 injured. In the same period, nearly 22,0000 students were abducted, 126 'disappeared', 1,730 were arrested or tortured, 368 were beaten, 1,264 received threats and 323 were injured.

Sierra Leone: An estimated 1,200 schools were destroyed in targeted attacks during the brutal civil war that ended in 2001. At least 6,845 children were used as child soldiers and 3,000 young girls were abducted and taken as wives or sex slaves. An unspecified number of schoolchildren had limbs forcibly amputated, many of them following attacks on schools. Most amputations took place in 1998-1999.

The Sudan: 108 children were reported abducted by the Sudanese Liberation Army in
May 2006. One school and one teacher-training institute were attacked in that month while in
July, a student was killed at a school in Darfur and 10 students and one teacher were shot dead trying to escape. There are no aggregate figures for education-related attacks in north or south Sudan, UNICEF says.

Sri Lanka: Tamil Tigers recruited at least 3,516 children between February 2002 and November 2004. When 1,600 child soldiers were demobilised by the Karuna faction in 2004, the Tamil Tigers recruited many of them using intimidation, abduction and violence.

Thailand: The Thai Ministry of Education said in December 2006 that 71 teachers had been killed and 130 schools burned down in the previous three years. At least 112 teachers had been injured. In the three southernmost provinces, 16 students died and 58 were injured in the same period.

Zimbabwe: Between 2001 and 2002, there were at least 238 human rights violations against teachers, including 34 cases of torture, 75 incidents of assault, 13 death threats, school closures and six abductions. In addition, two ministers were alleged to have issued death threats against student leaders and their principals for supporting the opposition. Many further atrocities have occurred over the past three years.

Case studies:

Iraq: Gunning for the intellectuals

On 25 February 2007, a suicide bomber triggered a ball-bearing packed charge amid a crowd of mainly Shiite students at a college in Baghdad, killing 42 people and injuring 55 others. Most of the victims were students.

Witnesses said a woman dressed in a chador (Islamic veil) and holding plastic sacks carried out the attack at Mustansiriya University, detonating the bomb at the gates of the business and administration department as students entered to sit mid-term exams. The university had already been warned to close its doors. The main campus was hit by a series of bombings that killed 100 students in January that year.

Nepal: Still filling the ranks with children

Henang had no choice when he was kidnapped, aged 13, by Maoist guerrillas. "It was purely chance that it was me," he recalls. "When the Maoists came to our school and asked the way to the nearest village, terrified pupils ran in all directions. A guerrilla soldier pointed his pistol at me and threatened to kill me if I didn't go with them."

Henang (not his real name) was interviewed by Save the Children. He escaped after nine months, covered in scars from punishments. "I tried many times to get away. Every time I was caught and beaten by the commander. He always watched me, threatened me and hit me."

One evening, Henang killed the commander and escaped. But he was taken into army custody and pressured into revealing which villages had cooperated with the guerrillas and the army took retribution. Now he cannot go home in case he is treated as an informer and traitor. Instead, he lives in a rehabilitation and training centre supported by Save the Children.

Thailand: Targets of separatists

Schools and universities see Thai Muslim separatists as representing the Thai government and Buddhist-Thai culture. Not only are they symbols of the state but they are seen as inculcating the values of the state and imposing a national secular curriculum on an area which is 80%

"Schools should be safe zones,'" says Sheldon Shaeffer, Director of Unesco's Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, "but they are highly visible targets and attacking them does more to grab the attention of the country or the world than attacking government offices."

As a result, teachers have been singled out for assassination. Since the start of the insurgency, at least 73 Muslim and Buddhist teachers or education workers have been killed, many of them shot on their way to or from school by pillion passenger assassins. Some have been shot in class - in one case, insurgents donned school uniforms to get into the school - or at their lodgings, or during ambushes of security patrols trying to convoy students safely to their schools.

Many have died in explosions aimed at their transport, some have been attacked with knives and hammers as they left home. Bombs and remotely controlled bombs have increasingly replaced fire-bombings as the weapon of choice.

* This is an edited extract from Education Under Attack: a global study on targeted political and military violence against education staff, students, teachers, union and government officials, and institutions. The report was commissioned last year by Unesco and written by Brendan O'Malley. See