The Right to Education: Regulating the Conduct of Armed Forces Under International Law



    The Right to Education: Regulating the Conduct of Armed Forces Under International Law

    Feb 26, New Delhi: Paramilitary troops had been living in the classrooms of Tankuppa High School for three years when my colleagues at Human Rights Watch visited the town in India’s eastern state of Bihar in 2009. The soldiers had moved into the school after a group of Maoist rebels attacked and destroyed the police station where the troops were based. On any given day, from 25 to 40 armed men were deployed at the school. They had added brick sentry boxes on the school roof and other fortifications, including sandbags, around the main gate.

    The troops—members of the state’s special auxiliary police force—were using eight of the 11 classrooms, leaving the school’s 700 students only the three that remained. Indira, a 16-year-old student, told us, “We are facing problems with our studies. When the students are [all in attendance] we have to stand or sit on the ground … It is very difficult if you sit on the floor to write or to take notes of what the teacher is saying.” The paramilitary had also taken over the school’s toilets. “I generally go to a nearby field,” Indira said. “I feel ashamed doing this.”

    Along with many of the other students we spoke with, Indira complained that the police presence disturbed her studies. “Sometimes they bring culprits back to the school and beat them,” she said. “I feel very bad when they beat them.” She added, “I feel bad when I’m studying when [the police] are nearby eating, chatting, and doing things that I can’t stand.”

    Like Indira, students in the majority of recent conflicts around the world have seen their schools used by warring parties for military purposes. Schools have been turned into barracks, bases, weapons depots, training groups, sniper posts, and even detention and torture chambers.

    When troops move in, children are either displaced entirely, denying them education, or forced to try to study alongside armed men. Worse, the military use of schools can turn schools into legitimate military objectives under the laws of war. Children and teachers have been killed or wounded when opposing forces have attacked occupied schools.

    Despite such negative effects, this practice was minimally documented—and in some cases even accepted—until recently. However, in a relatively short period, this has begun to change. The United Nations and various countries now have begun to condemn the use of schools by armed forces and non-state armed groups and seek ways to stop it. Countries from around the world came together recently to join a “Safe Schools Declaration,” pledging to protect education during armed conflict.

    By joining the declaration, the countries endorsed the “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict.” These six guidelines, drafted in a consultative process over the last three years, provide clear guidance to governments and non-state armed groups in to avoid using schools in planning and executing their military operations. As of July 30, 49 countries from around the world had committed—and several had already begun—to change their practices.

    While it is encouraging that the problem is increasingly recognized and solutions are being identified, serious challenges remain. These include opposition to the guidelines by some large, Western militaries. Ultimately, their objections boil down to their desire to be able to use schools for various military purposes if it suits their needs.

    This position may become increasingly indefensible with education on the front line of recent conflict—from the Pakistani Taliban’s horrific school attack that killed over 130 children and Boko Haram abducting schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, to the thousands of schools destroyed or occupied in Syria. At the same time, the numbers of supportive countries and rebel armed groups is growing, and good examples are emerging of how militaries engaged in combat can do so without using schools and putting education in the battlefield.

    This article first outlines the problem of military use of schools, its widespread scope and the harm it inflicts on recognized and solutions are being identified, serious challenges remain. These include opposition to the guidelines by some large, Western militaries. Ultimately, their objections boil down to their desire to be able to use schools for various military purposes if it suits their needs. This position may become increasingly indefensible with education on the front line of recent conflict—from the Pakistani Taliban’s horrific school attack that killed over 130 children and Boko Haram abducting schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, to the thousands of schools destroyed or occupied in Syria. At the same time, the numbers of supportive countries and rebel armed groups is growing, and good examples are emerging of how militaries engaged in combat can do so without using schools and putting education in the battlefield. This article first outlines the problem of military use of schools, its widespread scope and the harm it inflicts on children and their education. It looks at how international humanitarian law and human rights law address the problem and considers reasons why, in practice, those protections have not been widely respected. As evidence increases, policymakers and experts have begun to take the issue up, with one result being growing support for the guidelines. The article concludes with three steps that are now needed to ensure that these promising developments become true protections for children, their schools, and their education in wartime.