The Iraq of 2011 faces immense challenges. The countrywide dangerous and volatile security situation continues. Cultural cleansing persists. Three wars, 13 years of sanctions, an illegal invasion and occupation have converted Iraq into the world’s biggest garbage container. Year after year young and old are victims of unexploded ordinance. And no-one knows the full extent of the damages done through repeated use of depleted uranium.
Iraq’s former pride, its education system, has collapsed. During the years of sanctions, there were almost no teaching aids, books were difficult to obtain, curriculum development and teacher training were all but non-existent and gaining academic training abroad was not possible. Since then, under occupation, much irrelevant education material has been imported, ideology and religious bias have been introduced and rampant insecurity impedes access to schools and universities. Iraq faces an education crisis of enormous proportions with all the implications this has for the country’s return to normalcy.
‘It is a terrible thing to waste a brain’ is a sign I remember from my studies in the southern US in the 1960s. Such a waste is Iraq’s reality. According to a 2007 Oxfam report, some 92 per cent of Iraq’s children suffer from learning impediments. In 2010, a UNICEF report described the learning environment in Iraq as influenced by poor safety, family poverty and a reluctance to allow adolescent girls to attend school. The report quoted female students referring to their schools as ‘unwelcoming, unpleasant, dirty, poorly maintained with filthy lavatories and no drinking water.’
All of this is not dissimilar to the conditions prevailing during sanctions. During the six and a half years (from 1996 to 2003) of the UN’s humanitarian exemption (the Oil-for-Food programme), the allocation for education in Iraq came to a mere $2.1 billion. Assuming that there were six million school-age youth in Iraq at the time, this amount comes to $35 per student per year, or 9 cents a day. To put this amount into perspective: in the early years of the US occupation, the cost of maintaining US troops in Iraq came to about $144 billion a year.
The inadequate amounts of oil revenue – which Iraq was allowed to earn under UN sanctions – gave the Iraqi authorities little leeway for providing a more adequate education budget. The Baghdad-based UN agencies tried to have this budget increased. It was not possible. In 1999, the then Minister of Trade Mohamed Medhi Saleh told me: ‘It is in our interest to increase the resources for education.’ But, he added metaphorically, ‘the cloth we can buy with the restrictions of sanctions is not enough to cover Iraq’s body.’
Earlier this year, an Iraqi student studying abroad described the current situation and reiterated what UNICEF had reported earlier about the poor physical conditions in Iraqi schools: ‘No water, no electricity, poorly equipped classrooms’. He added something even more disturbing: ‘If students belong to certain religious groups that differ from the religion of their teachers, they often get lower grades. Also, students are able to obtain exam questions before taking the examinations, if they are able to pay teachers.’ Let us remember that we are describing a country which in 1982 obtained a Unesco prize for having eradicated illiteracy.
It cannot be stressed enough that this catastrophe was avoidable. Those responsible for this development, both within and outside of Iraq, must be held accountable. Governments, the 15 members of the UN Security Council and the UN Secretariat cannot shun their responsibilities for what can only be called a crime against the youth of Iraq. The UN Security Council has to muster the will to assess the role it played in bringing Iraqi education to its knees.
Cultural Cleansing: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered, published by Pluto Press in 2010, is a significant first step in determining whether the killing of Iraqi academics and other professionals is indeed a case of pre-meditated murder of Iraq’s intellectual élite and could constitute ‘educide’. The word has yet to enter the international dictionary of crimes; it is a composite of the words education and genocide, which I combined to refer to genocide of the educated segments of Iraqi society. It can only be hoped that both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court will pursue the question of possible educide in Iraq.
The list of open-ended challenges facing Iraq is long. It includes the challenge to focus on priorities and respect for Iraq through a common sense of purpose and unity of action. In relation to ‘Iraq, education and what next’, I’d like to argue that:
1) The ‘what next’ has to have first and foremost an Iraqi answer;
2) The outside should be ready to assist, but only if requested;
3) Humility, not arrogance, should be the guiding principle of foreign involvement;
4) Good international rhetoric in itself, however, is like a container without content. Much has been said and promised, little has been delivered.
There are exceptions, for example, the First Lady of Qatar Sheikha Moussa’s International Fund for Higher Education in Iraq, her Bridge Initiative and the Institute of International Education’s (Iraqi) Scholar Rescue Fund. Europe and other parts of the world should emulate what Qatar is already doing. But it must be emulation without a hidden agenda. There should not be any foreign hand re-writing history in Iraqi textbooks. The call of the moment is for the involvement of professionals, not politicians; doers, not operators. Neither sectarianism nor foreign opportunism have any place in the rebuilding of Iraq’s system of education.
Let the Ghent Charter in Defense of Iraqi Academia, signed on 9 March 2011 and deposited with UNESCO, be the guide. The University of Ghent/BRussells Tribunal initiative has become a milestone in efforts to revitalize the Iraq debate. This valuable initiative must not be seen as one of a kind. Let it be the ‘soil’ in which a thousand flowers bloom; for a groundswell of training of Iraqi teachers and students, scholars and researchers and for twinning arrangements between schools and universities in Iraq and abroad. Carefully awarded scholarships for Iraqis studying inside and outside of Iraq must be included.
In the spirit of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let there finally be, after a delay of eight years, another UN Human Rights Rapporteur for Iraq working alongside the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education.
This speech has been edited for online publication.