IRAQ: Killing academics is a war crime

The international community should explicitly recognise crimes against educators as crimes against humanity or war crimes, a conference of 150 Iraqi ministers, MPs, university presidents and international experts was told last week. Hosted in Paris by Unesco, in collaboration with the Qatari Foundation, the conference heard that more than 250 academics had been killed in a "campaign of terror" since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in targeted attacks.

Hasni Abidi, of the International Committee for the Protection of Iraqi Academics, said: "We condemn forcefully the gross human rights violations aimed at the education system in Iraq and we call upon the international community to spare no effort to protect the education system and establish mechanisms to prevent such attacks."

HRH Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser All-Missned called for a system of monitoring to "document all the violations against education systems, academics and students".

Although the general security situation has improved in recent months, with attacks on civilians in Baghdad down 90% on 2006 levels, academics and education officials are still being murdered, though no longer at a rate that is threatening a collapse of the university system.

The conference was told that an academic was killed at Mosul University in late October. The day before the conference began, a bomb in Baghdad struck a bus carrying education ministry employees, killing two of them, according to AFP.

Iraqi Ministry of Education figures, published by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, indicated there had been 31,600 attacks against education institutions between the fall of Saddam Hussein and September 2007. This included the assassination of 259 academics, the abduction of a further 72 and detention of another 174. More than 100 students had been killed - mostly by car bombs and mortar rounds targeting schools and universities.

"The impact of this campaign of terror and blatant disregard of learning institutions is a massive brain drain from the country, the suspension of classes for weeks at a time, replacement of lecturers by recent graduates, a decline in quality of education, absence, and a traumatised student and staff body," the UN Assistance Mission reported.

Conflicting figures from Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights, published by, say that 340 academics were killed in 2005-7. At the conference a working group on the protection of academics recommended, after heated discussions, that:

* An independent international investigation of such crimes in Iraq should be set up;
* Mechanisms should be put in place to ensure the safety and security of educators and students and establish the neutrality of educational institutions and curricula;
* The Iraqi government should prosecute all perpetrators and compensate the families of the killed academics.

Working group participants said an international independent investigation was needed because the government had failed to take action so far. Experts pointed out that attacks on education institutions were already a war crime under the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court.

Last year, a Unesco report titled Education Under Attack and written by this reporter, found there appeared to have been a dramatic rise in the number of attacks worldwide on education targets in conflicts since 2004. The report recommended international action to "embed protection of teachers and academics within human rights law" and ensure perpetrators of attacks on schools, colleges, universities and the education process were prosecuted.

* See our Feature section to read extracts from Education Under Attack.

* Brendan O'Malley is the author of Education Under Attack: a global study on targeted political and military violence against education staff, students, teachers, union and government officials, and institutions.