There's an international effort to make safe schools in conflict zones

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Marco Werman: Ironically, just as the tragedy was unfolding in Pakistan, about three dozen nations were meeting in Geneva to discuss an initiative to protect schools and students in conflict zones. Human Rights Watch is supporting the new guidelines and the director of their children’s division is Zama Coursen-Neff. Zama, what is it these nations are trying to do?


Zama Coursen-Neff: It’s the culmination of an almost three-year process to develop international guidelines that would place schools and universities off limits to warring parties. It’s a very simple concept, it’s in line with existing law, but far too often in conflicts around the world schools and universities are used for military purposes and it places children and their education at risk.


Werman: Just to be clear, this Safe Schools Initiative, as it’s known, it’s got nothing to do with preventing Columbine or Newton-style school attacks here in the States, right?


Coursen-Neff: No. I mean, those are tragedies in their own right. But this is an initiative to deal with what happens in war time. We at Human Rights Watch, along with the global coalition to protect education from attack have found that in the majority of conflicts worldwide in recent years, schools have been used by militaries and armed groups as training grounds, as bases for weapon storage, as sniper posts, even detention centers and torture chambers. They have sometimes nice kitchens, latrines, classrooms where troops probably prefer to sleep rather in than in tents out in the jungle as we were told in India. But there’s a failure to appreciate the real consequences of that. In places like in India and in southern Thailand, we’ve documented children who continue to try to go to school alongside armed men. You can imagine that this not only creates a wholly inappropriate environment for education but also puts them at risk when opposing forces try to attack those troops. In other instances, they just displace the children entirely, denying them an education. Even in a conflict where the school might not be functioning at the moment, we have found that when troops move in and get attacked, the school is destroyed, and often in peacetime, when that education is so vital to recovery, the school isn’t rebuilt and education doesn’t resume.


Werman: Let’s suppose that a government has signed up to the Safe School guidelines -- what would happen when a rebel group occupies a school as a training base or some kind of frontline strongpoint. What is the government supposed to do, leave them in peace at the school?


Coursen-Neff: This is what the guidelines say: first of all, if they’re actively using a school for military purposes, the military should do the same analysis they do when considering attacking any kind of position that’s held -- a hospital, a church, a civilian house, and say ‘What are the consequences of that and is it worth attacking this target?’ When they do that, they have to consider not just the value of the rebel groups inside but also what it means to destroy a school that may not be rebuilt for a long time. The other thing the guidelines say is that if a military, for example, captures a school that has been used by the other side, they can’t just take it over and use it for military purposes as well. They need to preserve that and protect that as a school, keeping in mind their own communities’ need for education now and in the future.


Werman: You’re getting states to sign up to these guidelines but a lot of wars these days, most wars probably, are not between states but between states and non-state actors. So, are you going to bring rebel groups into this and sign it too?


Coursen-Neff: Absolutely, in the sense that these guidelines have already been presented to some 35 non-state arms groups in Geneva last month, they’ve taken into consideration the guidelines. In places like with some rebel groups in Syria, non-state arms groups are already being trained on these guidelines. They’re a good idea not just on paper but in practice and the point of having international guidelines is to not wave around some international documents, it is to change the way that war is waged on the ground and in the way that we’ve already seen churches, hospitals and other civilian institutions respected even in the midst of war.


Werman: Zama Coursen-Neff of Human Rights Watch. Thank you very much for your time.


Coursen-Neff: Thank you for having me.