A law that can make PH a leader

The Inquirer, November 22, 2012

By Bede Sheppard

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

I approached the school—high in the hills of northern Luzon—with a bit of trepidation. It was late in the day, and schools that lack the joyous cacophony of children playing always seem a little eerie to me.

I was also being cautious because my intent was to follow up on a rumor I had heard that the Armed Forces of the Philippines had established a base inside the school. But as I walked toward the school I could not see any of the tell-tale signs of military occupation that I usually see when investigating this problem around the world. There were no barbed wire, sandbags, observation fortresses, or armed sentries.

Instead, a genial-looking man was fumbling with his satchel as he closed the school gate. When I asked for the principal, his face lit up: “Well, that’s me!” When I explained why I had come to his school, he shook his head, saying: “No, that’s not true.” And then he took me to his home, and told me what had really happened.

The military had been conducting operations in the area the year before, and an officer had come to ask the principal whether the troops could establish a temporary base in the school’s kitchen building. “I opposed it, I said no,” the principal said. “There was a heated discussion between the officer and myself.”

A few days later, when the principal was enjoying coffee after church, a more senior officer approached him. The officer began by complaining about how cold it was where the soldiers were camping, and again broached whether they could set up a barracks in the school.

The principal’s eyes twinkled as he told me the next part: “I told him about the Philippines’ law… I told him about Republic Act 7610 that is for the protection of children.” And as the principal told me this, he was rummaging in his bag to pull out a dog-eared copy of the law. “I always carry with me some legal instruments… So I told him, ‘I’m sorry, General, but we are concerned with children, and it is very clear that public institutions such as schools should not be used for military purposes.’” By this time, his finger had found the relevant provision in his copy of the law, and he looked up at me, grinning.

The Philippines is one of the few countries in the world that has both legislation and military policies banning the practice of militaries using schools. Although cases of the military setting up camp in schools continue to be reported, as this school in Luzon and the smile on the principal’s face both attest, having clear standards banning the practice gives teachers and communities a tool to help protect their schools.

A report released this week by a coalition of UN agencies and human rights organizations—the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack—finds that in the majority of countries with armed conflicts around the world, armed forces or armed groups have used schools and other education institutions. They have converted schools into barracks and military bases, filling classrooms with sleeping cots, and encircling playing fields with barbed wire. They have established fortifications above classrooms, to help them observe and shoot their enemies. And they have stacked assault rifles in hallways, hidden grenades under desks, and parked armored vehicles in gymnasiums. In the past seven years, they have used education facilities in at least 24 countries in conflicts across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America.

Such military use of schools has grave consequences for students’ and teachers’ safety. In the worst cases, children have been injured and killed and schools damaged or destroyed as belligerent forces have attacked schools because military forces were using them.

Students’ right to education is also endangered when troops move into schools. Frequently, the consequences of military use of schools include high student dropout rates, reduced enrollment, lower rates of transition to higher education levels, overcrowding, and loss of instructional hours.

Filipinos should be proud that their country has some of the best legislation in the world banning military use of schools. After decades of various internal conflicts, the Philippines has an understanding of both the tactical requirements of military operations and the detrimental impact when military units  use schools. That Philippine law prohibits this practice—even though there are allegations of continued violation—illustrates both the practicality and value of such a prohibition.

The principal in northern Luzon demonstrated that school officials can use the law to defend their schools and their students. But he should not have had to fend off the military. The challenge now is for the AFP to ensure that the law is always followed in practice. If it were to do so, then the government of the Philippines would have the moral authority to encourage other countries around the world to follow its lead.

Bede Sheppard is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, a member of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (www.protectingeducation.org). He is also one of the authors of the coalition’s new report, “Lessons in War: Military Use of Schools and Other Education Institutions during Conflict.” He can be followed on Twitter @BedeOnKidRights.