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The war on education

by Kyle Mattews

Ottawa Citizen
January 1, 2015

More than two weeks have passed since the senseless school attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Taliban left more than 130 children dead. But the pain has not gone away: hundreds of families remain in mourning, a country is in shock and the international community is wondering what can be done to protect students from such violence.

That this cowardly use of force against young civilians took place just shortly after Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside co-winner Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian activist, should not surprise anyone.

Malala survived an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban in 2012 in Swat Valley. She was targeted because of her efforts to ensure more girls attend school and empower themselves through education. The person believed to have ordered Malala’s murder (and the attack against the school in Peshawar) is Maulana Fazlullah. He is better known as “Mullah” Radio because of his preaching on an illegal radio station years ago in which he frequently condemned girls going to school, arguing it goes against the teachings of Islam.

Commenting on the Peshawar massacre, Malala stated, “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters – but we will never be defeated.”

Unfortunately non-state actors have been increasingly targeting educational institutions in recent years. Just last December in Afghanistan, Taliban supporters launched a suicide bombing campaign against a French school in Kabul. While children and teachers gathered in the school auditorium to watch a play about the dangers of suicide attacks, someone slipped into the crowd and blew himself up, killing one.

But the problem is not just limited to South Asia. In Nigeria the Islamist group Boko Haram has carried out a series of deadly raids and attacks against non-religious educational institutions. The kidnapping of more than 200 school girls earlier this year is just the most recent case. The group has made clear that targeting schools is a religious duty and that they intend to continue, regardless of global public opinion or international human rights law.

You know things are getting worse when an organization is formed to confront the problem. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) was established in 2010 by numerous organizations who were “concerned about on-going attacks on educational institutions, their students, and staff in countries affected by conflict and insecurity.” GCPEA is governed by a steering committee comprised of the Council for At-Risk Academics, Human Rights Watch, the Institute of International Education, Save the Children, as well several United Nations agencies.

The Atlantic recently reported on the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database that demonstrates empirically that the problem has gotten worse in the past decade. While attacks against educational institutions sometimes occurred at the ratio of 100 per year at certain periods in the 1980s and 1990s, generally they would fluctuate at about 50. Beginning in 2004, the numbers have spiked upwards, reaching approximately 370 in 2013.

In response to the school attack in Peshawar, Gordon Brown, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom and current UN Special Envoy for Global Education, argued that “We should be defining attacks on schools as crimes against humanity. Schools that already have the same legal rights under international law as hospitals should also be the subject of agreements that they never become instruments of war.”

In the wake of the Peshawar attack, a consensus has emerged that increased global cooperation is needed to protect schools and students. The late Nelson Mandela accurately once noted that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” We must not lose sight of the fact that those targeting schools and students know this to be an absolute truth.

Kyle Matthews is a Fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and is Senior Deputy Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @kylecmatthews. This article is based on a shorter piece he wrote for the Canadian International Council’s website opencanada.org


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