Where Schools Are Already Closed
Human Rights Watch, June 30, 2016
By Bede Sheppard, Deputy Director, Children’s Rights Division
As students across Slovakia excitedly prepare for the final days of school this week, it’s a good time to ask what can be done to help the students who are already out of school—but who are a lot less happy about it.
Students such as 15-year-old “Amina,” whom I met in northern Nigeria last year. She stepped out of her classroom one morning to find a group of men outside brandishing guns. Scarves covered their faces, leaving only their eyes visible. Bravely, Amina turned and ran to find the school’s headmaster, who then tried to organize the school’s evacuation. But the gunmen didn’t wait. They began shooting at the fleeing children. “One of the boys got shot in the leg, and he later died,” she told me.
Classes were cancelled at Amina’s school following the attack by the armed insurgent group known as Boko Haram. The group, whose name translates from the local language as “Western Education is Forbidden,” has killed more than 600 teachers and destroyed more than 900 schools since 2009. Boko Haram set fire to Amina’s school too. “I only need one thing,” Amina said, “and that’s to be given admission to a regular school.”
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 during this period, and countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. This is a global problem in need of a global response.
That’s why the Slovak government should consider joining the 54 countries that have already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration. In joining this international declaration, countries make a political commitment to a number of measures to improve protection for students, teachers, schools, and universities during wartime. These include conducting more investigations and prosecutions of war crimes involving schools; improving monitoring and reporting of such attacks; acting faster to restore access to education when schools are attacked; and using a set of guidelines to minimize the use of schools and universities for military purposes, such as for bases or barracks.
Slovakia’s support for this declaration right now would be particularly valuable to children like Amina who yearn to learn even in the most difficult circumstances.
Half of the European Union member states have already endorsed the declaration. As Slovakia takes over the presidency of the Council of the EU next week, its endorsement would be timely for Slovakia to lead and influence other member states to join.
Nearly half of NATO member states have already endorsed the declaration. Slovakia is one of the NATO states with troops deployed overseas, and its willingness to ensure that its presence abroad would never impede children’s ability to go to school in safety would be particularly meaningful.
Slovak troops currently serving on peacekeeping missions abroad have already promised to never 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.
The United Nations children’s rights committee, in a recent assessment of Slovakia’s compliance with the international children’s rights treaty, said that Slovakia had more to do to carry out its international obligations to protect children from armed conflict. Endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration would be a responsible step in the right direction.
The Czech Republic, Poland, and Austria–Slovakia’s neighbors–all endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration on the first day that they could, and Slovakia shouldn’t want to risk looking like a laggard in the region. Strong regional support would also send a message of solidarity with Ukraine, where the hostilities in the east have damaged or destroyed hundreds of schools, many of which were used by parties to the conflict for military purposes.
And it’s 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. Countries should recognize that words are no longer enough. This is the time to take action.
Slovak schools will be back in session in September. In the meantime, the Slovak government should do its part in ensuring that safer schools can reopen for all children, no matter where in the world they might live. Slovakia should endorse the Safe Schools Declaration.