Education in the firing line

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 May, 2007, 12:00am

Two distraught teachers embrace the burned remains of two colleagues on the roadside, shot and set alight outside their school in southern Thailand.

A teacher in Baghdad, Iraq, is raped, mutilated and her body is strung up and left hanging outside the school gates for days.

Three education trade unionists are ordered out of a house where they are meeting and shot in the back in Arauca, Colombia.

A headteacher in Zabul province, Afghanistan, is beheaded for running a co-educational school.

Some parts of the world are becoming a deadly place to be a teacher or even a student.

These are just four incidents from hundreds that have surfaced during three months' research into deliberate violent political and military attacks against students, teachers and academics.

Within days of work starting on the global study for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), 70 Iraqi university students were killed and 170 injured in targeted explosions at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, and an elementary teacher became the 73rd education worker to be murdered in Thailand in the past three years.

The evidence points to a surge in targeted attacks on education staff, students and institutions in that period and the countries worst affected include Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Nepal, Thailand, Palestinian Autonomous Territories and Myanmar.

In Iraq, 280 academics have been killed since the fall of Saddam Hussein as part of an apparent campaign to liquidate intellectuals.

In Afghanistan there were 150 bombings, arson and missile attacks on education targets in 2005-06. In Colombia, 310 teachers have been murdered since 2000. In Nepal, 10,600 teachers and 22,000 students were abducted between 2002 and 2006, and 734 teachers and 1,730 students were arrested or tortured.

Myanmar is the world leader in the recruitment of child soldiers, with an estimated 70,000 minors enlisted in 2002, many of them in the national army, some forcibly recruited as young as 11. Recruiting children under 15, voluntarily or not, deprives them of their right to education and is a war crime.

Jan Eastman, deputy general secretary of Education International, a global federation of teachers' unions, says ways must be found to protect education from the effects of fighting and end the perception of schools as legitimate targets by combatants.

'We believe in quality education for all,' she said 'Children should not have to suffer the loss of education and worse, the actual violence, no matter what the reason for the conflict.'

In the worst-affected countries the impact of attacks on education provision is devastating. Given that up to 40 per cent of the 77 million children in the world not attending school can be found in conflict-affected countries, understanding the impact of these attacks is crucial to attempts to achieve 'Education for All' worldwide, a goal agreed by world leaders in 2000. In Iraq, for instance, the scale of incidents and deaths have reached a tipping point that threatens the collapse of the school and university systems. Only 30 per cent of Iraq's 3.5 million pupils are attending classes, compared with 75 per cent last school year. Baghdad universities are reporting attendance down by 40 per cent and in some departments attendance is down to a third. More than 3,000 academics have fled the country.

Muhammad al-Rubai, adviser to the Iraqi president on scientific affairs, told the BBC that universities had become a brutal battleground where abduction and murder of academics were a common event. Students are also targeted for violent crime and sectarian killings, especially in Baghdad and Mosul.

Across conflicts, education is increasingly under attack, partly because it is a soft target but also because it is often a factor in the underlying tension behind the conflict.

Ways must be found to tackle this problem and that means looking beyond security measures and addressing the real reasons why schools and universities have become targets.

For instance, in Thailand, while the government's traditional response has been to provide more armed guards for teachers and give them weapons training, it is now exploring with Unesco ways to reduce the sense of alienation from the education system in the troubled southernmost provinces.

Compromises made in the language medium and content of education - involving government schools teaching in the local language, Yawi, instead of Thai, and offering Islamic moral instruction; and Islamic schools teaching national secular curriculum history and Thai language alongside their religious studies, for instance - could ease the perception of schools as legitimate targets.

But attacks on schools and universities will never end as long as the perpetrators escape without investigation, arrest or prosecution.

The establishment of the International Criminal Court may help in this regard, because attacks on educational institutions are war crimes. They can also be crimes against humanity, when murders are carried out in accordance with a publicly declared policy of targeting civilians, for instance as perpetrated by the Taleban in Afghanistan, whose own military rule book calls for the killing of teachers who fail to heed warnings to stop teaching a non 'Islamic' curriculum.

But the court needs more resources. So far it has begun only one trial, and efforts to focus the application of human rights law on the child soldier issue need to be broadened to end impunity in the case of attacks against teachers, academics, schools and universities.

The use of emergency education programmes in refugee camps and other post-conflict situations has shown how education can aid stabilisation after fighting. The challenge now in conflict countries is to create student-friendly, inclusive, schools and universities, free of sectarianism and political interference, giving all sides a stake in their protection. They can then become safe sanctuaries or zones of peace, promoting tolerance and understanding, reducing tension and aiding efforts to resolve the wider conflict.

'There could be an international commitment, replicated at local and national level, that education should be a conflict-free zone,' Ms Eastman said. 'This is not only because it is a human right but also because education through inclusive schools should be regarded as the solution, the key to harmony, to building social justice, peace and hope.'

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', which was released by Unesco last Friday