Safe Schools Declaration: The first step towards making education safer for our children

The Nation, June 13, 2015

By Agha Mohsin

In Pakistan, attacks on schools and students have appeared in the headlines regularly in recent years. A recent UN Human Rights Council report notes that more than 3,600 attacks have taken place against educational institutions, teachers, and students in recent years. Threats and attacks on educational institutes have implications beyond the livelihoods and futures of the children affected. For decades, research has demonstrated that education is a proven method for growing economies, reducing extremism, and creating stability. Educating children has the power to mitigate those factors—including oversized youth populations, mass poverty, and limited economic opportunity—that create the environments where extremism tends to thrive.

As the month of May wound to an end, representatives of 37 countries got together for a meeting in Oslo to sign a document known as the Safe Schools Declaration. Developed by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), the document stipulates that the countries signing on it will commit themselves to taking concrete steps to protect education. Pakistan, which is one of the top three countries in the number of attacks specifically directed at the educational infrastructure, did not sign the declaration. Ironically, just as the Oslo meeting was wrapping up, it was reported that, contrary to the common belief, Pakistan had exonerated most of the men accused of shooting and injuring the schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai. With this dismal news as its context, if any country needs to recommit to protecting schools from attacks, it would be Pakistan. In 2014, the GCPEA had reported how both militants and the Pakistani military (also the US in Afghanistan) have used schools for various military purposes. The declaration (as well as the proposed guidelines) were a crucial first step in achieving international consensus on prohibiting the use of the education infrastructure by any party involved in conflict.

The legal impetus for the declaration comes from UN Security Council Resolutions 1998 (2011) and 2143 (2014), which urge all parties to stop using tactics that impede children’s access to education and to take concrete steps to prevent attacks on schools.

In Pakistan, the attack on Army Public School (APS) Peshawar, which took dozens of innocent lives and stunned the world in its cruelty, took place less than a year ago. Other than the rather dubious scheme of training children to use firearms, little else seems to have been done to prevent such a horrific act from happening again. In the meantime, schools in the northwest of the country are still subjected to bomb and grenade attacks to ensure that children do not go to school, even if there has been a drop in the number of such incidents. Is it surprising then that parents are often afraid to send their children to the very places that would prepare them for better lives?

Of course, signing the declaration would not magically transform the quagmire that is Pakistan’s current state of education. It would, however, indicate to international partners just how dangerous Pakistan’s education climate has become and enable collaborations that could potentially help students.

According to the GCPEA’s 2015 report, Pakistan is one of just 26 countries in which schools were used by both state and non-state actors during conflict. Joining transnational efforts to protect education is also important for small countries like Pakistan because they create avenues in which issues of impugned sovereignty can be raised at the international level. Furthermore, action on the international level is urgently required to reveal to other members of the international community that in Pakistan the retaliation against the “War on Terror” has become a war on education. Joining the declaration could provide those representing Pakistan at the international level with a forum in which they can show how the attacks on the education infrastructure by extremist groups are not incidental but intentional. If this routinely ignored reality is emphasized, then it could provoke some reckoning on how the “War on Terror” – being fought primarily by military means – requires intellectual rather than military weapons. On the local level, it could provoke questions that no one in Pakistan wants to tackle: are madrassas schools and do they deserve the same protection that schools get, given the fact that they, too, house and educate children?

The Safe Schools Declaration is one step that aims to separate education and war; such a separation is particularly crucial, if elusive, in Pakistan. Given this, joining hands with other nations committed to furthering this agenda could be of some small but significant use in what seems to be an endless fight against extremism and terror.