A major United Nations study on the impact of conflict on education finds students, teachers and schools under concerted and deliberate attack and calls for urgent measures to protect the academic future of children living in war zones.
The study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) catalogues a range of assaults on education: pupils taken hostage, targeted by bombs or abducted to work as child soldiers; teachers assassinated in school; the blasting of schools with shells and rockets or their use as military bases; and teacher trade unionists unaccountably disappearing.
Principal author Brendan O’Malley, briefing reporters in New York, offered stark statistics on the problem, saying that 280 academics have been killed in Iraq between the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and April this year “in a campaign of liquidation.” Iraq finds its education system “virtually on the point of collapse” with only 30 per cent of pupils attending school last year compared with 75 per cent the previous academic year.
He said there have been 190 bombing and missile attacks on educational facilities in Afghanistan in 2005-2006. In 2006, attacks prevented 100,000 Afghan children who had been in school the year before from attending.
In Colombia, 310 teachers have been murdered since 2000, while in Nepal, between 2002 and 2006, over 10,000 teachers and 22,000 students were abducted, and 734 teachers and 1,730 students arrested or tortured.
Myanmar, which Mr. O’Malley called the “child soldier capital of the world,” had 70,000 minors enlisted in 2002.
The study, which is based on available statistics, finds that 40 per cent of the 77 million students not in school live in conflict-affected areas. Mr. O’Malley noted that the problem, which is difficult to document, could well be more widespread, and called for the establishment of a global system to monitor the situation.
Pointing out that “attacks on educational institutions are a war crime,” the study charts the extent and nature of the violence and suggests actions to address it. Among other measures, it calls for campaigns to end impunity and steps to designate schools as sanctuaries in conflict zones. “One suggestion is that we create a symbol rather like the Red Cross to denote recognition of this status” protecting educational facilities, said Mr. O’Malley.
He called for international pressure to combat impunity for attacks. “We need urgent, collective action, including human rights campaigns, to set up a global database on education attacks, to end impunity for attacks, and to work towards acceptance of schools as zones of peace and safe sanctuaries.”
The report also says that the UN Security Council should “recognize the role that education can play in both contributing to tension and in promoting peace, and should offer support for strategies to remove education as a factor in conflicts.”
In an interview published on UNESCO’s website, the author suggests that the International Criminal Court (ICC) should be given more resources to bring education-related cases to trial. “This would widen its deterrent effect,” he said.
Mr. O’Malley also discusses the reason the report does not deal with random acts of violence such as the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University in the United States in April. “This study doesn’t include attacks like the one in Virginia, because it was not politically motivated,” he said.
But he adds that “there is one link,” namely the easy availability of guns. “The likelihood of attacks in conflict-affected countries most likely increases partly because more people with grievances have the weapons and therefore the means to carry out a violent attack.”
The report is dedicated to the memory of Safia Ama Jan, who worked throughout her life to get Afghan girls into school before she was shot and killed outside her home in Kandahar in September 2006.