In September 2004, a group of armed militants took more than 1,100 people (including 777 children) hostage at a school in Beslan located in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. After a tense standoff with Russian troops that lasted three days, security forces stormed the school. Following an intense gun battle, including the use of incendiary rockets and explosives, more than 380 people were killed, including many children. Despite a formal inquest and an official version of events blaming the militants for firing first, varying eyewitness accounts gave contradictory details and the school was later closed permanently (it is currently scheduled for demolition).
In 2008, Shamsia Husseini and her sister were walking towards the local girl's school in Kandahar, Afghanistan when a man pulled up on a motorcycle and asked them if they were going to school. When they responded yes, the man then pulled the burqa from Shamsia's head and sprayed her face with acid. Shamsia, along with at least 14 other children and teachers, were targeted by militants to punish them for attending school. While Shamsia eventually needed to be sent abroad for treatment, she and the other girls have since returned to school.
Rebels in the Somali town of Kismayu have ordered teachers to only instruct children in Arabic and banned the teaching of English in schools under their control. Posters in Somali and English have been torn down and replaced with Arabic-only posters. The teaching of Somali-only literature has also been banned.
In recent years, there has been a disturbing escalation in the use of brutal force directed against schools, children and teachers. Since schools represent a source of regional stability, as well as a means of disseminating public information, schools have been increasingly viewed as legitimate targets. A new report released by Human Rights Watch's Children's Rights Division attempts to call attention to the increasing number of violent attacks on schools in war zones.
Summarizing the current situation in 56 countries around the world, the report calls for stronger legislation to protect schools and their occupants, both staff and students, from being targeted by armed groups -- whether government forces or non-state militias.
While regulations protecting armies from attacking and destroying schools during war date back to the 17th century in many countries, international statutes protecting schools and other public buildings were only enacted in the 20th century. In 2002, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) formally declared attacks on educational buildings to be war crimes. While the ICC represents the court of last resort for national governments that are unwilling or unable to intervene directly, its jurisdiction is only limited to the 116 nations that are signatories of the Rome Statute.
While some abstaining nations have enacted domestic legislation to provide formal legal protection for schools, for many other nations, including China and India, legal protection for schools are often neglected whenever armed conflicts erupt.
Armed attacks on school buildings represent a common intimidation tactic for insurgent forces in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. In India's Bihar state, paramilitary police have been stationed at the high school in the city of Tankuppa since 2006 following the destruction of the local police station by Maoist guerrillas. The presence of paramilitary police patrolling school grounds are a common sight in other parts of India as well as well as Thailand, Burma, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Somalia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Yemen, and Sudan.
In describing the widespread use of violence on schools, the new report calls on all countries to adopt domestic legislation declaring deliberate attacks on schools to be war crimes and to prohibit armed forces, whether government or otherwise, to use or occupy school buildings or grounds in any way that violates international humanitarian law. Under those circumstances where a military presence on school grounds is unavoidable, governments are called on to minimize the harm that students and teachers might face.
While UNICEF and other international aid organizations actively intervene to assist children involved in armed conflicts, the need for international recognition of safety zones where children can be educated without fear remains an elusive goal.