The following address was given by journalist, author and documentary-maker Brendan O’Malley to the recent UN General Assembly Thematic Debate on Education in Emergencies. O’Malley is the author of Education under Attack, a UNESCO study on targeted political and military violence against education staff, students, teachers, union and government officials and institutions:
The 2007 Unesco study, Education Under Attack, was the first global investigation to document the targeting of political and military attacks against students, teachers, education officials and education trade unionists. The sobering finding was that there had been an alarming increase in such attacks in the previous three years.
The types of attack include the burning and bombing of schools, occupation by armed forces, murder, torture, abductions, rape, recruitment of child soldiers, and the threat of any of these.
The worst hit countries in the past decade include Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian Autonomous Territory, Nepal, Pakistan and Thailand. There are emerging threats in DR Congo, Niger, Pakistan, Somalia and Zimbabwe.
In the past five years, we have seen hundreds of teachers and teacher trade unionists deliberately murdered in Afghanistan, Thailand and Colombia. Nearly 300 academics were assassinated in Iraq – in fact there have been a reported 31,000 attacks on education institutions in that country in this period.
And at the turn of this year we saw the well-documented destruction of UN schools in Gaza.
This is both a human rights issue and an Education for All issue. The right to education in safety was enshrined in the expanded commentary of the Dakar Framework for Action issue by the World Education Forum.
Paragraph 58 declares that: “Schools should be respected and protected as sanctuaries and zones of peace.” Yet in the areas worst affected by attacks on education, the impact on Education for All has been devastating.
There is the loss of life, the destruction of buildings and materials, the closure of schools by hundreds at a time, sometimes for a week sometimes, as in Niger, for two years.
There is the flight of staff – last year, 300 teachers asked to leave one province affected by assassinations in the far south of Thailand – and the difficulty of recruitment which slowly degrades the quality of teaching offered.
There is the impact on pupil attendance as parents fear to send their child to school. Even if pupils do go back, fear will inhibit their learning.
And then there is the immeasurable psychological impact of the brutality, as many teachers are shot in front of their pupils by assassins, some even beheaded. One was raped and her body hung up outside her school in Iraq for a number of days.
Afghan children have witnessed acid thrown in their friends’ faces for daring to attend classes. How will the trauma of these experiences affect their wellbeing and learning?
So what should we do? The time is right to push for recognition and respect for the Dakar pledge to treat schools as safe sanctuaries and zones of peace. This requires better protection for teachers and students in law and in practice. It means ensuring that schools work for peace not against it, and it requires political and financial commitment to global monitoring and ending impunity.
The world must send a signal on this issue, that these attacks, though technically already covered as war crimes against civilians, will be given special attention because of the impact on children.
Good work began on this with the establishment of the Office of the Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, the setting up of the International Criminal Court, and particularly the efforts on ending recruitment of child soldiers.
We now need to widen the focus of human rights conventions and monitoring to cover this specific problem: the UN can take a lead by seeking to expand the definition of the war crime and grave violation of “attacks on schools” to make clear that it covers not just attacks on buildings, but also attacks on students and, crucially, all those who support their learning as teachers or staff at the school, as education aid workers or education officials.
At the same time we should apply this explicitly expanded meaning to UN Secretary-General monitoring of the grave violations and reports to the UN Security Council.
Of course, these conventions will only act as a deterrent if there is punishment for breaking them. The Secretary-General should be urged to specifically refer cases of attacks on education that may constitute a war crime or crime against humanity to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution.
Member states have their own responsibilities on this issue and could help by setting adherence to international human rights norms, especially the right to education, as a condition for aid or military aid and trade deals with parties to a conflict. This is an important issue when supporting peace agreements.
Similarly, member states can show their commitment to education in safety by ensuring their national legislation conforms with international law protecting the right to education in situations of concern and prohibiting attacks on education.
Let me give you an example of why this is important. Sometimes it is a matter of raising the consciousness of protecting education beyond the boundaries of a particular ministry. In Iraq in 2007, school examinations were struck by militants entering exam halls and killing teachers and students.
MPs pressed for a different approach in 2008, for cooperation between the army, police, security and education ministries. And they got the exams moved into university buildings where they could more easily be protected.
According to Alaa Makki, president of Iraq’s education committee, the key was “ensuring the importance of education in the mind of military officials”.
Looking further ahead, we must find ways to turn education into a force for peace. This means recognising how hate curricula and unfair provision can aggravate conflict. It means achieving the Equal Education for All goals of equity of access and equity of achievement, and good quality for all.
It means achieving article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: having a curriculum and ethos that develops respect for “the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values” as well as “national values”. And it means giving parents ownership, offering a curriculum sensitive to local language, culture, history and religion; and running schools transparently.
With these factors in place it will be more realistic to negotiate with parties to a conflict to treat schools as neutral, safe zones.
There has been a growing awareness of the issue of education attacks in the past couple of years. It needs to be given its place on the Education for All agenda of every affected state, of EFA partners, and of the EFA Global Monitoring Report each year.
The Secretary-General could send an important signal on this by commissioning a symbol that could be used to denote international and local recognition of schools as safe sanctuaries and zones of peace.
Education International, the voice of teachers worldwide, will add to the momentum by issuing a declaration on schools as safe sanctuaries.
We must all rally around such calls to recognise the right to Education for All means the right to education in safety, and applies not just to students but also to the teachers who are being shot in front of their class.