War and Schools

Dawn, June 10, 2015

By Rafia Zakaria

As the month of May wound to an end, representatives of 37 countries got together for a meeting in Oslo to sign on to a document known as the Safe Schools Declaration. Developed by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), the document stipulates that the joining countries will commit themselves to taking concrete steps that will protect education. All of them will now join in to act on GCPEA guidelines for the protection of schools and universities from military use during armed conflict. These guidelines call on all sides in armed conflict to avoid using the education infrastructure, which inevitably makes it a target of attack.

Pakistan, which is one of the top three countries in the number of attacks specifically directed at the education infrastructure, did not sign the declaration. Ironically, just as the Oslo meeting was wrapping up, it was reported that, contrary to the general belief, Pakistan had exonerated most of the men accused of shooting and injuring 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) emerged to mark a crucial first step in achieving international consensus on prohibiting the use of the education infrastructure by any party involved in conflict.

As the press release from the GCPEA said, “When armed forces use schools and universities as bases and barracks, weapons caches, training grounds, or detention centres, it may not only force students out, but it risks making those buildings a military target. Often the armed forces do not recognise the immediate or long-term costs of military use of schools. By using the guidelines, countries help safeguard their children, their education systems, and ultimately their societies”.

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 the Army Public School in 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 — particularly girls’ schools in the northwest of the country — are still subjected to bomb and grenade attacks to ensure that girls 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 on to the declaration would not magically transform the quagmire that is Pakistan’s current state of education. It would, however, underscore 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 groups during conflict. In India, the Supreme Court in 2010 had to order troops out of schools because their presence was disrupting education. The report found that even peacekeeping and multinational forces like Nato have used schools. UN peacekeepers were only ordered to stop the use of evacuated schools as staging areas in 2012. All the world is quick to sing the praises and underscore the promise of education for all; few in the recent past, however, have refrained from using schools as part of war efforts.

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. Indeed, that is probably the impetus that led to Palestine signing on to the declaration. With its educational institutions constantly subjected to raids, interventions and closures by Israeli forces, it needs avenues through which other countries can be enlisted in the effort to stop such incursions. If the world doesn’t know, the world doesn’t care.

Pakistan’s case is undoubtedly different from that of Palestine, however; in recent years the country has found itself facing attacks on its sovereignty as it finds itself a pawn to the strategic interests of this or that superpower. If vaccination programmes could be used to gather intelligence without any concern for public health consequences, then attaching similar strings to education is entirely possible.

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 emphasised, then it could provoke some reckoning on how the ‘war on terror’, being fought primarily through 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 madressahs schools and do they deserve the same protections, given that they too house and educate children?

The Declaration for Safe Schools 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.