Eight Arab countries are among those where students, teachers and academics have been the subject of the deliberate use of force, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack said in a study released last week.
The Education under Attack 2014 study presents descriptions of the types, number and consequences of attacks on education at all levels by state military and security forces and armed non-state groups. The study looked only at deliberate attacks on education facilities, students or staff members, not at incidents where they were accidentally caught in the crossfire of conflicts.
“Attacks on education in the last five years have killed hundreds of students, teachers and academics and injured many more,” said Diya Nijhowne, director of the Global Coalition. “Hundreds of thousands of students have been denied the right to education when their schools and universities have been intentionally damaged or destroyed or used for military purposes.”
According to the 250-page study, there were 9,600 attacks worldwide, with incidents recorded in 70 countries. But the worst problems, the study said, appeared in 30 countries where there was a pattern of deliberate attacks including eight in the Arab region: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Countries like Iraq, Palestine, Libya and Yemen fell into the category of “heavily affected” due to 500 to 999 reported attacks on educational institutions and personnel.
In contrast to many international reports, which focus on basic education, the Global Coalition study includes attacks that affected higher education.
“It shows that the problem of attacks on higher education is much greater than generally understood,” said Robert Quinn, the executive director of Scholars at Risk Network, which is part of the coalition, in an interview. “Comprehensive reporting like this puts these incidents in broader perspective, showing the problem for what it is: A widespread, intentional targeting of the right to think, question and share ideas.”
The study found that attacks on higher education were reported in 28 out of 30 countries profiled. Attacks damaged or destroyed university and college buildings in 17 of the 30 countries.
But assaults on higher education appear to have been monitored less than attacks on elementary and secondary schools. “Monitoring and reporting attacks on education are improving but the absence of a global system for systematically gathering data makes it difficult,” said Courtney Erwin, the legal program manager at Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict, a program of the Education Above All foundation based in Doha, Qatar.
Monitoring all attacks on education is difficult. Armed conflicts are often ongoing and security constraints limit the availability of information. “This is especially true in the case of colleges and universities,” she said. “Rigorous collection and verification of data are similarly complicated in some contexts where governments tightly control the flow of information and may themselves be perpetrators of attacks.”
According to the study, the largest number of student casualties in the world in higher education was in Yemen. In 2011 alone, when students were at the forefront of those demanding political change, 73 of them lost their lives as pro-government forces crushed protests. Another 139 students suffered injuries. From 2009 to 2012 in Sudan, government forces arrested more than 1,000 university students, killed more than 15 and injured more than 450, mostly during demonstrations on campus or in education-related protests.
As the report documents, attacks on education are often a tactic of war or conflict, aimed at weakening communities, local governments or perceptions of state control.
Palestinian schools and universities were targeted with air strikes, attacked by Israeli settlers and in some cases used by Israeli armed forces as interrogation centers or surveillance posts, the report said. During Operation Cast Lead, 14 of the 15 higher education institutions were damaged, with six directly targeted, according to the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza. Three colleges and six university buildings were fully destroyed. The total damage was estimated at $21 million.
Education in Syria is one of the most obvious examples of the social toll of recent conflict. Two of the country’s most prestigious universities were hit by multiple explosions, in January 2013, two explosions at Aleppo University killed 82 students and staff and wounded up to 150, and a mortar attack at Damascus University in March killed ten students and wounded 20 others.
The situation is also dire in Iraq, where dozens of university students and academics were killed in 2009-2012 and there were numerous direct attacks on schools. Almost 500 Iraqi academics were killed in the nine years from the fall of Saddam Hussein to April 2012, but the vast majority of assassinations occurred before 2009. Since then, attacks on higher education have continued at a much lower rate, with 26 killings recorded by media and human rights groups.
Attacks on higher education are not always the result of military conflict.
“Universities, colleges, professors and students are targeted because of the questions they ask and the information they share; that is, because they represent an alternative form of society,” Quinn said.
Prior to 2011, there were no reported incidents concerning education in Bahrain, the only Gulf state mentioned in the report. But following the outbreak of anti-government protests in 2011, students, there were many incidents of sectarian threats and intimidation in schools and universities, according to the study.
The study has taken around a year and half to develop. “The researchers have collated and cross-checked information from thousands of sources for reliability and accuracy and to avoid counting a single incident more than once,” Erwin said. This study differs from previous publications of Education under Attack in 2007 and 2010 published by Unesco, she said, in part because more resources were employed in the research and it set out to cover a wider range of incidents.
The Education under Attack report discusses ways to prevent conflict from affecting schools and universities and highlights the work of the Global Coalition to Protect Education to develop the Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict.
Meanwhile, the Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom Monitoring Project is actively tracking attacks on higher education throughout the region and will issue a report later this year. The organization arranged a conference in Tunisia last year to explore new opportunities and threats for universities in countries transformed by the recent Arab Spring. “We are currently planning follow-up activities to this international conference, with particular interest in Egypt and Syria and will be featuring these topics at our upcoming international SAR Network Global Congress in Amsterdam on 9-10 April 2014,” said Quinn.
Amid the spiral of violence the report attempts to find solutions. “We hope it will have the potential to create a different kind of ripple effect, one that returns education to its right place in society,” Erwin said.
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