Development & Aid, Education, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights

EDUCATION: Schools, Academics in the Gun Sights

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 8 2007 (IPS) - A “dramatic increase” in targeted violence against schools and educational institutions, mostly in conflict zones, is having a devastating effect on students, teachers, trade unionists, administrators and education officials, according to a new U.N. study released here.

A Shiite Islamic school in Bahrain that was burned three times by unknown persons. Credit: Leo Heart

A Shiite Islamic school in Bahrain that was burned three times by unknown persons. Credit: Leo Heart

In 2006, militants killed 85 students and teachers, and destroyed 187 schools in battle-scarred Afghanistan.

On average, 42 teachers are murdered every year in Colombia. A total of 310 teachers were killed between 2000 and 2006 in that strife-torn Latin American country.

Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in April 2003, 280 academics, including 180 university professors, have been killed in the occupied nation.

In Sierra Leone, an estimated 1,200 schools were destroyed in targeted attacks during the country’s civil war which ended in 2001.

The grim statistics come from the 38-page study commissioned by the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which was released Thursday.

“The common threat is that these are incidents involving the deliberate use of force in ways that disrupt and deter the provision of, and access to, education,” says the study titled “Education Under Attack”, authored by Brendan O’ Malley.

A veteran journalist and an independent consultant with UNESCO, O’Malley told reporters the global study was the first of its kind on the subject of education and violence.

He said the rising violence includes bombings, assassinations, abductions, illegal detention, torture, as well as the burning of educational buildings and closure of institutions by force.

“Parts of the world are becoming deadly to be a student, teacher or education official,” he added.

And attacks on education “often escape international attention amid the general fighting in conflict-affected countries.”

Over the past five years, O’Malley said countries worst-affected include Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Nepal, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, Thailand and Zimbabwe.

In a number of countries, he pointed out, the bombing of universities and education offices and targeted killing of teachers and academics have become the favoured tactics of fighting groups.

Since September 2000, 43 schools have been occupied by Israeli troops and turned into military bases, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education.

The Ministry of Education in Thailand has reported that some 71 teachers were killed and 130 schools burned down during the three year period 2003-2006.

The study also details the forced recruitment of child soldiers, the voluntary recruitment of child soldiers under the age of 15, and rape, where it is part of a political, military and/or sectarian attack.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tiger rebel group recruited over 3,500 children between February 2002 and November 2004.

O’Malley said that some of the worst abuses took place in Burma (Myanmar), which he described as “child soldier capital of the world”.

He said child soldiering is now legally recognised as a war crime, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is dealing with the first of such crimes.

Globally, responses to attacks on education are generally focused on military force and political dialogue. A third response is the use of an increasing array of legal instruments, according to the study.

The Thai government has provided armed escorts for teachers to and from schools, while they are also given weapons training so that they can fight back.

Asked about the conclusions of the study, O’Malley said a serious challenge in conflict-affected countries is to move towards a position where schools, colleges and universities be accepted as “safe sanctuaries” and shielded from military and political violence- as in the case of churches and religious institutions.

Perhaps, they should also carry a symbol, like the Red Cross insignia, to protect them from attacks, he added.

The study’s recommendations include a call to U.N. member states to eradicate impunity in the case of attacks on education staff, students, trade unionists, officials and institutions.

Secondly, there should be greater resources to the ICC to bring more cases to trial to widen its deterrent effect.

Thirdly, governments should use every opportunity to set conditions of adherence to human rights norms – with particular reference to the rights of children, the right to education and protection of both educational institutions and the process of education – when entering trade or aid agreements with parties to a conflict.

The study also calls on the Security Council to offer support for strategies to remove education as a factor in conflicts.

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