Lawyers call for war crime charges as destruction continues

Ongoing attacks on infrastructure since the start of the armed conflict in Sudan in mid-April, including on universities, hospitals, libraries and research centres, have intensified calls from academic and human rights circles for the need to safeguard higher education institutions during military clashes and to rebuild the sector in war-torn areas.

The concern over damage to education and health infrastructure has heightened after the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), according to news reports on 5 June, took control of the National Museum in the capital, Khartoum, sparking concern about the preservation of historical artefacts held in the facility, some thousands of years old.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor in global thought and comparative philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, told University World News: “Armed conflicts are incredibly brutal. Education is the first casualty.”

On 2 June, a group of Sudanese lawyers sent a legal notice to the International Criminal Court in which it asked that the two warring parties in Sudan, RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), be charged with war crimes, including sexual violence and attacking universities and hospitals.

Earlier, the damage done to education in Sudan was also raised at other forums. ‘Education is not a target and must be safeguarded’ was the theme of an event that formed part of ‘Education in Armed Conflict: Protection, Prevention, and Access’ at the United Nations headquarters in New York in the United States and a 27 May communiqué adopted by the Peace and Security Council of the African Union, which called for the protection of “vital state infrastructures”.

Dr Maleiha Malik, the executive director of the Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict programme at the Education Above All Foundation (EAA), told University World News: “EAA calls on all parties to the conflict to ensure that higher education institutions are not a target. The international community must [act on the hashtag] #UniteToProtect higher education in Sudan to ensure that students and educational staff can continue to learn, teach and research in safety.”

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Cairo’s National Research Centre, told University World News: “Whatever the cause of war or the forces involved, armed conflicts lead to the destruction of societies’ physical infrastructure, including higher education institutions and university hospitals which could be used as shelters, [as] fighting positions, weapons storage facilities and military health centres.”

Speaking to University World News, Dr Iyad Nasr, a visiting research fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, echoed this view.

“Education has been one of the greatest casualties of the latest episode of violence in Sudan where schools and universities suffer greatly from the effects of this internal armed conflict which threatens to destabilise the entire region,” said Nasr.

That education is a casualty was confirmed when the attacks against Sudanese universities were summarised in a 24 May AlArabiya TV video clip.

Expanding further, Nigel Healey, a professor of international higher education and vice-president for global and community engagement at the University of Limerick in Ireland, said: “The impact of attacks against universities means repeated evacuations and the suspension of studies as university leaders are being forced to close universities and send students and staff home for the own safety, but the longer-term damage is that it makes it impossible for university leaders to invest in the development of teaching and research.

“In the current confused and tense situation, it is hard to see any way of safely continuing the delivery of education on-campus,” Healey told University World News.

Scope of the attacks

Adil Mohamed Ali, the executive director of the Sudanese Environment Conservation Society and a former coordinator at the United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP, told University World News that, since the start of the fighting between the SAF and RSF, the infrastructure destruction has been severe, including hospitals, banks, factories, water and electricity facilities and even private homes.

“The University of Khartoum is a particular hot spot due to its proximity to the general command of the armed forces, with warplanes hovering overhead and nearby buildings destroyed by fire,” Ali added.

The Institute of African and Asian Studies, a part of the Graduate Studies Institute, as well as the Faculty of Engineering was hit by shelling. The survival of animals at the University of Khartoum’s Natural History Museum, located within the university’s central Khartoum campus, which is an important resource for scientists and specialists, was also put at risk.

Also, several other universities were subjected to looting, theft, and were set on fire, including Al Mughtaribeen University, or Expatriate University, Mashreq University, Nahda College, Ahfad University for Women, the University Of Zalingei’s faculty complex in the Al-Hamidiyah neighbourhood, the administration complex of Al-Neelain University, the library at the Muhammad Omar Bashir Centre for Sudanese Studies located at Omdurman Ahlia University and the professors’ residence of the Sudan University of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Consultancy Centre, said Ali.

Expanding further, Assistant Professor Mosab Nouraldein Hamad, the director of the Centre for Research Excellence at Elsheikh Abdallah Elbadri University in Sudan, told University World News: “Several university hospitals and teaching hospitals have been damaged or occupied by armed forces, including the Elrazi University hospital, the Police University Hospital, and the teaching hospitals of Khartoum, Al-Shaab, BashairBahri Zalingei and El Geneina as well as the Pediatric Teaching Hospital and the Omdurman Teaching Hospital.”

Hamad’s view is supported by a 23 May statement issued by Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) titled ‘MSF facilities looted, medical activities impeded by violence in Sudan’, and a 22 May field report issued by a committee of the Sudan Doctors Trade Union.

Also, the ministry of higher education and scientific research (MHESR) issued a statement on 20 May saying a number of higher education institutions “have been systematically destroyed during the past days, as the building of the presidency of MHESR was burned and a large number of its governmental and private institutions were destroyed, which made them vulnerable to theft and looting”.

Who is attacking universities?

But Ali interrogates the motivation of the destruction of infrastructure such as universities.

“The damage is so vast … and no one knows its exact intent now whether it is a systematic and organised act or it is random as a result of military clashes and its associated security and safety situation,” Ali said.

Hamad added that, although the two parties to the conflict accuse each other of targeting universities and-or facilitating and perpetrating looting and robberies in several faculties in the capital and other cities, “I blame all the armed groups because reports indicate that one of them occupies the civilian facilities for military purposes and the other one bombs it”.

“I think that damage to universities is part of the systemic destroying of state hospitals, electricity and water stations, banks and markets,” said Hamad.

“This is because several reports indicated that organised gangs, specialising in robberies, known locally as ‘Nigers’, are currently strengthening the view of the state of security chaos in Sudan – and the escape of hundreds of prisoners since the start of the military clashes,” Hamad pointed out.

A group of Nigers was involved in theft at the College of Imam Hadi at Bodnobawi.

Rescue plan for universities

Professor Ahmed Attia, the head of faculty affairs at the faculty of medical technology at the University of Tripoli, Libya, told University World News: “National, regional and international organisations including UNESCO, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, the Global Campaign for Education, the Right to Education, the Education Above All Foundation, and the Education Cannot Wait must join forces to formulate a rescue plan to urgently implement practical measures and best practices on the ground to protect the remaining Sudanese universities from attacks.”

“The Sudanese academic diaspora plays a crucial role in bringing attention to the situation in Sudan,” Adib-Moghaddam indicated.

For example, Ream Ali spoke about the situation in Sudan during her graduation ceremony at Harvard University in the United States.

“What we need are targeted programmes to support academics that are forced to flee the country,” Adib-Moghaddam suggested.

“These targeted programmes could be formulated by scholar rescue organisations, including Scholars at Risk, the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF), the Council for At-Risk Academics and the Academy in Exile,” Attia explained.

“Also, post-conflict initiatives for rebuilding Sudan’s higher education system must be established,” Attia pointed out.

IIE-SRF issued a statement on Sudan saying: “We have a responsibility in the global higher education community to assist our colleagues forced to flee violence. We are prepared to work closely with our global network to provide practical support to threatened and displaced scholars from Sudan.”