According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, an attack on education consists of “any intentional threat or use of force — carried out for political, military, ideological, ethnic, religious or criminal reasons – and against educators, students or educational institutions.”
Last year, the coalition, which particularly focuses on attacks in areas of conflict, showed the number of attacks on education in several countries. Between 2009 and 2012, 838 schools were attacked in Pakistan, more than any other country in the world.
In the words of the report, “militants recruited children from schools and madressahs, some of them to be suicide bombers. There were also targeted killings of teachers and academics”.
None of this is news in Pakistan, where the long list of killings of all sorts grows to new lengths each day.
However, putting the concept of schools as killing fields in the context of other countries also experiencing conflict reveals the scale of the problem. In the same period, Somalia, long wracked by violence, experienced 79 attacks documented by the UN.
These included the abduction of children from schools, the abduction of girls for forced marriages, and the targeting of students by suicide bombings. Schools were often also used as military bases for fighting.
In neighbouring Afghanistan, the number of attacks was also very high. The culprits ranged from the Taliban to the Afghan National Army.
The UN secretary general reported that international military forces stationed in that country used schools on five occasions in 2010, and that in 2011 schools were taken over 20 times by armed groups and 11 times by pro-government forces, a total of 31 incidents of military use of schools.
In 2010, 10 schools were used for military purposes, three by anti-government forces and seven by pro-government forces. One incident from Kapisa province involved the takeover of a school by the Afghan National Army for four years.
As the data demonstrates, violations occur across the board. In the case of Pakistan (and undoubtedly in the local media of other countries in conflict), the data is disaggregated and presented instead as episodes in the sagas of other hatreds. Dead professors are attributed to sectarian identity, suicide attacks on madressahs to militant activity, and so on.
However, if the cumulative data on a number of countries is looked at, it appears that educational institutions — regardless of their affiliations — are not simply in the crossfire of the general chaos of conflict. Instead, educational institutions are the subject of particular attack. The pattern makes sense, for the simple reason that schools by definition and purpose are repositories of ideas and of the future; and what, after all, is war if not the effort to overtake and dominate both of these.
Furthermore, despite the fact that education is so regularly attacked and on such a global scale, there is no international covenant or treaty that particularly focuses on this. In his essay, ‘Military Use of Schools and Universities: Changing Behaviour’, scholar Steven Haines argues that the development of international guidelines on the issue is crucial to establishing educational institutions as venues that deserve protections during conflicts.
The ‘Draft Lucens Guidelines’ that were first published in July 2013 aim for just this purpose. Under their provisions, states would agree that “functioning schools and universities should not be used by the fighting forces of parties to armed conflict in any way in support of the military effort”, and also that “abandoned schools and universities should not be used by the fighting forces of parties in armed conflict for any purpose in support of the military effort except when, and only as long as, no such choice is possible”.
The intent of the guidelines is to aim for a voluntary adoption by all states so that they can then be a basis of legitimacy and accountability in situations when they are violated.
In Pakistan, advocacy surrounding the adoption of the guidelines may be a useful constructive step. As civilians of a country faced by both local and global threats, asking various actors to accept the guidelines as basis of future fighting may expose those who refuse to adopt them as openly hostile to preserving and protecting educational institutions.
In a country where everyone is eager to sing paeans to the importance of education, some public statements accepting the guidelines offers some concrete basis to otherwise empty claims.
Danger accompanies every Pakistani child who goes to school; threats lurk around teachers standing before dilapidated chalkboards, facing classrooms with broken furniture. Those who propagate ideas are gunned down and blown away, their deaths routinely mourned and then compartmentalised as unavoidable tragedies.
Tolerating the mayhem may be a compromise of those who live in the present, but for those who will one day have to construct the future, the re-establishment of the school as a safe place is not a choice but an imperative.