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BLOG: A Day in the Life: Protecting Students, Teachers and Schools in Today’s Wars

last modified Aug 23, 2017 12:48 PM
CGHR practitioner series featuring Bede Sheppard, Deputy Director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Florence Gildea, member of CGHR's student group, wrote about his talk.

There was cause for optimism, thankfully, as a result of the talk ‘A Day in the Life: Protecting Students, Teachers and Schools in Today’s Wars’, given by Bede Sheppard, Deputy Director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. Sheppard talked about how schools, teachers and students have been the object of attack in countries experiencing armed conflict around the world. Schools are often targeted for what education is seen to represent, Bede Sheppard explained. The name Boko Haram, for example, literally translates as “Western education is sinful,” and consequently this Islamist armed group attacked 910 schools between 2009 and 2015, killing 611 teachers and forcing 19,000 to flee. In Southern provinces of Thailand, armed separatist insurgents have attacked 300 schools since 2007, killing 190 teachers because they are seen as indoctrinating Thai, Buddhist messages among a mainly Malay, Muslim population.  

But Sheppard found that not all countries fit this pattern: in some areas, schools have been attacked not because of what they were seen to represent, but rather because they were being used for military purposes. In 2007, Human Rights Watch found that schools were used for military purposes in 29 countries across the Americas, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East- which constituted the majority of countries with armed conflict. This meant that in these countries, schools could be used as barracks, weapons stores, places for training, detention and interrogation. All of these could have negative consequences on the safety of teachers and students. For instance, Sheppard found that a school in Central India was struggling to keep girls in school, despite offering 200 scholarships to do so, because girls were not allowed by their parents to return, owing to fear of sexual assault by military officers stationed in the school. Problems of lower attendance, dropping out, reduced enrolment, and lower rates of transition (e.g. between different stages of schooling) were found to follow from military uses of schools all over the world, and girls were especially negatively affected. But loss of life could also follow when students and teachers were caught up in armed conflict as a result of their school becoming a military target. 

Sheppard then walked us through the process, which began in 2012, by which these findings were used to bring about change. Human Rights Watch cooperated with other NGOs and organisations affiliated with the UN to bring together representatives from 12 countries in order to present them with the evidence of the negative effects of the military use of schools. This resulted in a set of guidelines being created to protect schools from military use, which was released during 2013. Human Rights Watch then tried to raise the interest of the UN Security Council to give these guidelines teeth. Consequently, Resolution 2143, and a firmer version Resolution 2225 were passed. The second ‘encourages Member States to take concrete measures to deter such use of schools by armed forces and armed groups’.  Sheppard then explained how this was turned into the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment by which endorsing parties agree to protect schools from military use, to collect reliable data on attacks on schools, and to continue education during armed conflict, as a matter of domestic policy. He believed that endorsing this declaration had led to tangible changes in certain countries, like Afghanistan. But, although 64 countries have so far endorsed the declaration, Sheppard is still working to get other countries to endorse itthe declaration. In fact, his very visit to the UK was to persuade secure the British government’s to endorsement the declaration which;, along with countries including  Australia, the US, Germany and South Korea, it the UK has so far resisted signing on. Overall, Bede Sheppard was pleased and hopeful for the progress of human rights around the world, especially regarding children and education. But the resistance he had faced from several powerful ‘Western’ countries on the military use of schools and the fact that the US has still not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child gave many members of the audience cause for concern about the future of human rights.

By Florence Gildea, MPhil Candidate in Sociology