GLOBAL: More academics and students suffer attacks

<img width="50" height="51" align="left" src="" alt="">The world was shocked when a student at Balkh University in Afghanistan was sentenced to death in October 2007 for downloading and distributing information about the role of women in Islamic societies. Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, originally sentenced to be executed for "insolence to the Holy Prophet", was given 20 years in prison on appeal.

Western ambassadors approached the Afghan authorities on his behalf and a London newspaper, The Independent, gathered 100,000 signatures in support of the student. He was secretly pardoned and released in August 2009 - after two years in jail.

But Kambakhsh, in one respect, was one of the lucky few: many such cases never make it into the headlines of the Western press. Unesco's new global study, Education under Attack 2010, reports that in a hard core of countries academics and students are suffering serious human rights violations, ranging from assassination, to torture and death threats, mainly at the hands of government or government-backed forces.

In Colombia, for instance, 17 students were assassinated between January 2006 and July 2009, and one 'disappeared' after being taken away by members of the intelligence service, DAS, according to a joint report published in the UK by the University College Union, Justice for Colombia and the National Union of Students.

In 2006-08, 99 human rights violations against students were recorded, including 57 death threats against student leaders or student organisations. In addition, Colombian universities suffered bomb attacks carried out by left-wing guerrillas and death threats from right-wing paramilitaries.

In November 2008, the rector of Colombia's largest higher education institution, the National University, revealed it had received 312 death threats from paramilitaries, including a letter from Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) declaring 32 students a military target and ordering a 6pm-6am curfew on suspected left-wing activists.

The study was launched at the UN headquarters in New York and presented to US policy makers in Washington. In between, a launch meeting of a new alliance of education, human rights and child protection agencies was held in New York at the offices of Human Rights Watch to try to agree a common agenda for co-operation to prevent attacks on education and ensure that perpetrators are punished.

In the report, a persistent pattern of attacks on higher education in Colombia, Iran, Iraq and Zimbabwe are recorded. As are other incidents in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Guatemala, Honduras, Palestinian Autonomous Territories, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Venezuela.

In Iran, a succession of academics, teachers and students have been arrested since 2007 on charges of conspiring with "enemy governments", endangering national security, insulting Islam and its clerics, "intent to commit propaganda" or participating in demonstrations.

In one of the worst incidents, in June last year, the paramilitary police, the Bassij, invaded dormitories in Tehran University, shooting dead four students, attacking others and burning bedrooms.

In Sri Lanka, dozens of university students were reportedly targeted for government abductions and disappearances between 2005 and 2007. In Zimbabwe, 85 students were abducted, assaulted or arrested in 2008.

The motives vary between incidents and between countries. But common themes are attempts to silence critics, control the content of research, prevent political plurality, assimilate or exclude minorities or particular ethnic groups.

In some cases the attackers are invading military forces. In Gaza, six university buildings were destroyed and 16 damaged during Israeli operations at the turn of 2008-09. It was part of a declared policy of destroying the infrastructure of the Hamas government.

Brigadier General Dan Harel, Israel's Deputy Chief of Staff, declared on 29 December 2008: "After this operation there will not be a single Hamas building left standing in Gaza."

That same day, the lslamic University in Gaza was bombed and the Ministry of Education was reportedly hit twice.

In some cases, the motives appear to be sectarian. In Iraq, where the Ministry of Human Rights reported 340 university professors killed by insurgents and militias between 2005 and 2007, many deaths were attributed to power struggles for control by one faction or another of university campuses.

Although the killings on Iraqi campuses have fallen from their peak in 2006, they remain a serious problem, with 53 academics and one student assassinated in 2007, 10 academics and one university student killed and 60 students kidnapped in 2008, and six academics and three university students killed in the first half of 2009.

As Vernor Munoz, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, argues in the report: "These attacks have a terrible physical effect, because they destroy human lives, buildings and spaces for learning. But they also have a symbolic effect based on fear, on the subordination of some persons to others and the elimination of the opportunity to live with dignity and freedom."

The physical effects of the bombing, shelling and burning of university and school buildings are relatively easy to gauge and include loss of life, injury, and the loss of places in which to learn, of learning materials, equipment and furniture, research materials, computers, data, laboratories and transport.

But the psychological effects of the murder, torture and disappearance of students, teachers and other staff are much harder to measure. They can include trauma, fear, insecurity, lack of motivation, and despondency among students, parents, academics, support staff and officials managing the university system.

Attacks on universities undermine the quality of higher education provision, restrict its contribution to economic, political and human development by inhibiting the growth of ideas, destroying intellectual capital and deterring bright minds from pursuing an academic career.

Currently, the only global system for monitoring attacks on education is the UN Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on Children and Armed Conflict which, among other grave violations, tracks attacks on schools.

But so far it has been under-reporting the attacks because of a lack of involvement by education-oriented UN agencies and non-government organisations. It does not track violations against higher education.

The education aid agenda is rightly increasingly focusing on combating conditions of fragility and conflict, yet little attention has been paid to the serious long-term effects that attacks on higher education can have on social, economic, and political development.

It is time the international community put an effective system in place to monitor the full range of attacks on education - on higher education institutions, students and academics, as well as schools, teachers and pupils; and education officials and trade unionists.

But there is also an urgent need for the international community to consider how it can strengthen academic freedom and protection of academics in international law.

* Education under Attack 2010 by Brendan O'Malley , Unesco 2010 can be downloaded at

* Brendan O'Malley is a correspondent for University World News and works as an independent consultant for Unesco and Education International. He is the author of Education under Attack (2007) and Education under Attack 2010.