Fighting back: A global watchdog has been launched to combat the number of attacks on teachers and students

Fighting back: A global watchdog has been launched to combat the number of attacks on teachers and students.

John Akker reports The Guardian - United Kingdom; May 1, 2001


In many parts of the world, university academics and students live in perpetual fear. The same is true for teachers in colleges and schools, and increasingly for pupils. For some, this is the reality of life in the first part of the 21st century. Killings, imprisonment, abuse and harassment are on the increase.


This is the reason behind a new global watchdog, Network for Education and Academic Rights (Near). Inspired by a meeting called by Unesco early in 2000, it is being launched to aid the rapid transfer of information on a global basis. It will alert those able to take action to protest to governments and international agencies and will quickly inform the leaders of countries with the worst record that their actions are being closely watched by an international community.


News about attacks on educational establishments do not often hit the headlines. How many of us have heard that recently in Ethiopia 49 people were killed in clashes, most of these linked to universities and schools? Amnesty International reported that security forces were using 'excessive force against students and other demonstrators'. According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), students and schoolchildren protested and police rounded up protesters, who were demanding greater freedom of expression.


 A statement from the Addis Ababa University Students Association posted on the net on April 23 said, 'We are in grave danger . . . we want the world to hear our side of the story . . . many students are seriously wounded and are being detained'. Over the last 10 years, university academics have either been forced to flee Ethiopia or been imprisoned. The BBC website shows the student dormitories splattered with blood.


 Near will provide a site where reports from many sources have been incorporated.


Other examples can be found in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Burma, China, Malaysia, Belarus and Uzbekistan - just a small number of countries where those in education are at risk. In Afghanistan, academics were forced to flee from the Taliban regime. Many arrived in Pakistan where they faced further harassment and threats.


 Academics in Serbia continue to grapple with the legacy of Slobodan Milosevic's attempts to control the universities that served as centres of opposition to his government. The University Act of 1998 subjected faculty members to political oversight and deprived them of the right to select their administrators. As a result of this law Belgrade University alone lost some 180 instructors and professors.


 The dictator's measures backfired. Opposition to the University Act was one of the central demands of students and academics protesting against the Milosevic government, with many university professors and members of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts backing Otpor ('Resistance'), a loosely structured, student-led opposition movement that played a critical role in Milosevic's electoral defeat.


One of the first moves of the new Serbian Minister of Education was to rescind the University Act. While Yugoslav universities now operate under the law as it was before 1998, they still have to deal with those academics who were sacked because of it. Although ministers have suggested a new law, the first drafts have been criticised as insufficiently protective of academic freedom. In the meantime, cases are being looked at individually.


As well as these large-scale occurrences, there are countless situations of police detaining individuals who try to leave the country or those who are dismissed from their posts for expressing views opposing the ruling party. One academic was detained recently leaving a Middle East country because he was an outspoken advocate of human rights. He faced imprisonment because of remarks made at an international conference in  which he criticised the country's human rights record.


 Some will say that others face the same risk from totalitarian regimes. Universities and schools, however, are often at the forefront of any human rights conflict - which is as it should be if basic educational values are to be upheld.


But what can be done? Well, quite a lot. China has detained three academics without trial. An international campaign of protest is under way led by the academic freedom committee of Human Rights Watch, the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, while 400 international China studies scholars have sent a letter to President Jiang Zemin. China's cultural and academic links are at risk. The authorities there certainly would not realise the extent of the international concern if the world of education had remained silent.


So how will the new network be organised? Funded by Unesco - with other grants now being sought worldwide - its whole raison d'etre will be to assist those who already promote educational rights. It will work vigorously to improve information transfer among those best able to take action. Member organisations will be able to post alerts and other information on the Near website, which is now under construction.


The network will, through the opportunities provided by the internet and other communication technologies, develop links with NGOs, trade unions, professional bodies, decision makers, educators and the general public making vital information aimed at defending freedom of expression available and accessible.


 Founding members of the network are the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Human Rights Watch, the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, the Association of University Teachers, the worldwide teacher organisation Education International, the Scholars at Risk Network (University of Chicago) and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.


The new network's related organisation is the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (Ifex) with which it already has close links ( Formed in 1992, with the support of Unesco, Ifex has transformed the global exchange of information about abuses against the rights of journalists. It now has in excess of 50 member organizations throughout the world, and its website receives more than 60,000 hits a week. The alert system that it deploys brings together a worldwide group of interested and concerned organisations that can quickly bring pressure on governments and international bodies.


Sited next to the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics in London, Near will be building its lists of member organisation throughout the world. Links with Africa, Asia and South America will be a vital part of the network's development plan.


Mary Robinson, the UN human rights commissioner, recently stated that universities, colleges and schools have a vital role to play in the development of human rights. The network will be working to ensure their rights are upheld.


John Akker is the executive director of Near. Email: near@jakker.fsnet.


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