Education under attack

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3 maart 2014 | Attacks on students and teachers are a daily reality in over thirty countries. It doesn't only result in death and destruction, but also in hundreds of thousands of students missing out on education that could lift them out of poverty into a more secure and better life.

“The school bus, a converted truck, had travelled only a few hundred yards from Khushal School in Mingora, north-west Pakistan, when a masked man stepped in front of the vehicle. An accomplice armed with a pistol climbed onto the tailgate at the rear, leaned over and asked which of the 20 schoolgirls huddled inside was Malala. When the driver stepped on the accelerator, the gunman opened fire, shooting Malala in the head.”

Not only in Pakistan, but in a growing number of countries, schools, universities and their staff and students are heavily affected by violence and war, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack writes in their newest report ‘Education under Attack’.

Targeted attacks

The global study examines threats or deliberate use of force against students, teachers, academics, education trade union members, government officials, aid workers and other education staff, and against schools, universities and other education institutions, carried out for political, military, ideological, sectarian, ethnic or religious reasons between 2009 and 2013; and military use of education buildings and facilities.

It focuses on targeted attacks by state military and security forces and armed non-state groups on education facilities, students or staff, not death, injury or destruction resulting from being caught in crossfire. It does not examine school attacks by lone armed individuals with none of the above-listed motives or affiliations, such as the school shooting at Sandy Hook in the United States in 2012.

Case-specific success

The countries most  heavily affected , with over 1,000 documented attacks between 2009 and 2012 on schools, universities, staff and students, are Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. Conflicts range from recruiting child soldiers on busy school routs in Africa to planned assassinations of teachers in Colombia to complete civil wars in Sudan and Syria.

 “Possible measures for the protection of higher education and prevention of future attacks are wide-ranging and each has strengths and limitations. Success is likely to be highly context-sensitive and case-specific. More research is clearly needed to improve knowledge and awareness and further develop strategies on this issue. This review suggests the need for caution in generalizing findings and positing global solutions, particularly when so little rigorous research is available that maps the dynamics of attacks on higher education in relation to mechanisms of protection, prevention and accountability.”

Nevertheless, immediate short-term steps can be taken to increase protection and help prevent future attacks. These could include increased support for the monitoring of attacks on higher education. Analysis of the problem of attacks on higher education points to the lack of systematic documentation, and an absence of a mechanism that specifically and exclusively monitors and reports on attacks and of international and national protection responses.

Lobbying could be fruitful

Mechanisms could also be developed to improve emergency protection measures available to higher education institutions and communities. In countries with a high prevalence of attacks on higher education institutions, efforts could be undertaken to raise security awareness among students, academics and administrators and other staff, for example, through training workshops, and to develop a tailored security.

Lobbying and advocacy could also be fruitfully targeted at national governments to emphasize their responsibilities for protecting higher education from attack and the potential legal sanctions if they fail to do so. Linked to this, there is a need to increase awareness and understanding of attacks on higher education as part of the problem of attacks on education more generally. While there have been great strides made over recent years in raising awareness of attacks on education around the world, evidence and advocacy on the higher education sector have been noticeably lagging. 

The main recommendations from the report are:

Attacking schools, universities, students, teachers and academics is a common tactic in situations of conflict and insecurity around the world. While some progress has been made, much more can and should be done to protect education:

States should investigate, prosecute and, if guilt is proven, punish individuals responsible for ordering, bearing command responsibility for, or taking part in, the range of violations of international law that constitute attacks on education. Regional and international tribunals should, similarly, give specific consideration to the range of violations that constitute attacks against education.

Governments, the United Nations, regional peacekeepers and armed non-state groups should refrain from using schools and universities for military purposes; they should endorse the Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict and incorporate them into their doctrine and policies.

Government leaders and leaders of armed non-state groups should make clear public statements that attacks on education are prohibited and issue clear military orders to this effect. States should also ensure that their domestic law criminalizes all elements of attacks on education in line with international humanitarian and human rights law.

Governments of states where attacks occur should rigorously monitor and investigate attacks against students, teachers, academics and other education personnel, and schools and universities, as well as the impact of such attacks, and use that information to coordinate responses. At the international level, the human rights treaty monitoring bodies should more systematically raise the issue of attacks on education and military use of schools in their examination of states, and governments and civil society should provide more information about these violations in their submissions.

Where safety concerns allow, UN agencies, NGOs, peace-keeping forces and governments should undertake or support negotiations with parties to a conflict in order to reach agreement regarding respect for schools as safe sanctuaries and re-opening closed schools.

Governments should ensure education facilities, staff and students are not used for electoral tasks and political events whenever it can be reasonably expected that such use would heighten the risk of attack.

Education ministries should adopt conflict-sensitive curricula and resourcing policies to ensure that education does not help trigger conflict and become a target for attack.

States should protect higher education institutions at all times and prevent violence and intimidation against academics by introducing and implementing policies, regulations and laws that promote both institutional autonomy and the security of higher education communities.


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