Estonia Should Step In To Protect Children In War Zones
Eesti Päevaleht / Human Rights Watch, September 16, 2016
By Bede Sheppard
Estonia has again begun a new academic year. But what can Estonia do to help students in other countries who won’t be so lucky?
Students such as 15-year-old “Amina,” who stepped outside of her classroom in northern Nigeria one morning to find a group of men wielding guns. Scarves hid their faces, exposing only their eyes. Amina bravely ran to alert the headmaster, who tried to evacuate the school. But the gunmen fired at the fleeing children.
“One of the boys got shot in the leg,” Amina told me. “Later he died.”
Classes were cancelled indefinitely at Amina’s school following this attack by the extremist armed group Boko Haram, whose name translates as “Western Education is Forbidden,” and who have killed more than 600 teachers, killed and abducted students, and destroyed more than 900 schools in the past six years. Boko Haram set fire to Amina’s school too.
Since 2009, at least 31 countries have experienced a pattern of targeted attacks on students, teachers, and schools for a variety of reasons. This includes the majority of countries with armed conflict, and countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
This is a global problem in need of a global response, which is why 56 countries have already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, a new global statement that aims to improve protections for students, teachers, schools, and universities during wartime. Governments that endorse the declaration make a commitment to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes involving schools; to improve reporting of such attacks; to restore access to education faster when schools are attacked; and to minimize the use of schools for military purposes, such as for bases or barracks.
Estonia should become the next country to join.
Doing so would befit Estonia’s current role as president of Unicef, the United Nations children’s agency, which consistently urges governments to improve protection for students and schools during wartime. Estonia’s support for this declaration right now would be particularly valuable to thousands of children like Amina who strive to learn even in the most difficult circumstances.
Although half of European Union states have already endorsed the declaration, only a little more than a third of Council of Europe members have done so. Estonia’s current chairmanship of the council means its endorsement would be a timely influence on other member states to join. It would also lend credibility to one of Estonia’s stated priorities for its leadership of the council: children’s rights.
Increased support within the Council of Europe for safer schools during armed conflict would also send a valuable message to the people of Ukraine, where hostilities have damaged or destroyed hundreds of schools, many of them used by parties to the conflict for military purposes.
In a recent meeting with Human Rights Watch, Estonia’s Defense ministry said that it was reluctant to have Estonia join the declaration because Estonia doesn’t make new international commitments until it is sure it can abide by them. Fair enough, but that shouldn’t become an excuse to never act, especially since the declaration doesn’t place new legal obligations on states. Instead it reinforces existing obligations and encourages countries to go further wherever possible. When pressed, the ministry declined to specify any area in which the declaration conflicted with existing policies of the Estonian armed forces.
As a NATO member with troops deployed overseas, Estonia should demonstrate its willingness to ensure that its presence abroad would never impede children’s ability to go to school in safety.
Estonian troops serving in the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon have already promised to follow the UN’s requirement never to use schools in their operations, which is an even more stringent standard than the declaration calls for. This means that joining the declaration should present little or no implementation challenges for these forces.
Moreover, Estonian forces in Lebanon form part of a joint battalion with soldiers from Finland and Ireland—two nations that immediately endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration. Estonian soldiers have successfully served alongside these forces, so it’s hard to imagine that the declaration could raise inter-operability concerns.
Indeed, Lebanon itself was among the first to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, as were many other countries that have been impacted by war, such as South Sudan, Sudan, Liberia, Mozambique, and Palestine. If these countries want safer schools, Estonia should too.
Finally, endorsing the declaration is the right thing to do. The declaration is for countries that voluntarily wish to stand on the side of better protection for children who aspire to continue their studies, even amid the chaos of war.
“I only need one thing,” Amina told me in Nigeria, “to be given admission to a regular school.”
Estonia should do its part to ensure that safer schools can reopen for all children, no matter where in the world they might live. Estonia should endorse the Safe Schools Declaration.