Pakistan should endorse ‘Safe Schools Declaration’

Diya Nijhowne Director, Global Coalition to protect education from attack

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack is a unique inter-agency coalition formed in 2010 to address the problem of targeted attacks on education during armed conflict. The Coalition’s director, Diya Nijhowne, shared her views with The Express Tribune on the safety of educational institutions in Pakistan and how the international community, especially her coalition, can help. Here is what she has to say:

ET: What do you think can or should be done to secure educational institutions against attacks in Pakistan?

DN: Pakistan should endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration, developed in 2015 through a state-led process, headed by Norway and Argentina. Thus far, 51 states have endorsed the Declaration which provides a comprehensive approach to protecting education. It includes a commitment to endorse and use the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict which offers guidance on how to restrict the practice of military use. It also includes commitments to collect data on attacks and military use, which is critical for developing effective responses; investigate attacks and duly prosecute perpetrators of attacks as well as provide assistance to victims; implement conflict sensitive education that does not trigger tensions between groups; and continue safe education during conflict, for example developing contingency and risk reduction plans to mitigate the impact of attacks.

ET: How can international organisations in general and your coalition in particular help Pakistan protect educational institutions?

DN: International organisations, such as the UN, can assist Pakistan by supporting them in implementing the measures detailed in the Safe Schools Declaration. The Coalition has resources on good practice in protecting education that have been applied in other countries and may be adapted to the Pakistan context.

Educational institutions are protected as civilian objects under international humanitarian law and targeted attacks on them can be war crimes

-Diya Nijhowne Director, Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack

ET: In Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the government is considering arming teachers to defend their institutions against terrorist attacks. Is this the right approach?

DN: There is a risk in arming teachers that they will lose their perceived neutrality and be associated with the state which will place them at further risk of attack. Also, bringing arms into the school can create a threatening environment for the students.

ET: What are the short and long term effects of attacks on educational institutions?

DN: In the short term, attacks result in death, injury, and destruction of education buildings and materials which can lead to schools closing, sometimes for extended periods of time. The fear associated with the threat of attacks leads students and teachers to stop attending and even when education does continue the quality of the education can be reduced due to the damage to the infrastructure and materials and the fear of students and teachers. In the long term, the education system is damaged and the loss of education for students can have lifelong implications as they are unable to proceed to higher grades or continue their education. Ultimately, this impacts the social and economic development of the entire society.

ET: What do you think is the reason or are the reasons for the upsurge in attacks on educational targets over the past decade or so?

DN: There are many reasons for attacks on schools and universities. They are state institutions and so soft, easy targets for anti-government forces. Attacks on education strike at the heart of a community, instilling fear and raising doubts about the government's ability to protect them. Educational facilities are places where values, beliefs and ideologies are disseminated so they are targets for those who oppose those values. Schools and universities are also used for military purposes which makes vulnerable to attacks from opposing forces.

ET: What international law or laws are violated by attacks on educational targets? In Pakistan, where we have militant and separatist insurgencies, do you think attacking educational institutes can constitute war crimes?

DN: Educational institutions are protected as civilian objects under international humanitarian law and targeted attacks on them can be war crimes. International human rights law also protects the right to education, including in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights.

ET: Do you think use of educational institutions for strategic purposes (deployment of military troops) in strife-hit areas also make them vulnerable to attacks?

DN: Yes, under international humanitarian law, the use of educational institutions for military purposes can convert it into a legitimate military target, making it a target for attacks by opposing forces.

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