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Protecting schools from militant attacks

Jul 22, 2011

Human Rights Watch in its report Schools and Armed Conflict highlights the negative impact on education due to militant attacks on schools. Based on a survey in 56 countries, the report examines policies and legislations to protect schools from militancy.


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A 162-page report, "Schools and Armed Conflict: A Global Survey of Domestic Laws and State Practice Protecting Schools from Attack and Military Use," examines domestic laws and military policies in 56 countries around the world. 

In many countries around the world, the ability of children to obtain an education in a safe and nurturing environment is being disrupted by armed forces and non-state armed groups who attack schools or occupy and use schools for long periods.

This report examines—in three separate chapters—law and state practice relevant to three issues: (1) protecting civilian objects (buildings and other infrastructure) from intentional attack; (2) protecting education buildings from intentional attack, and (3) deterring education facilities from being used or occupied by government security forces and non-state armed groups. 

Legislative protection

Schools and other education facilities are protected under two bodies of international law: international humanitarian law and international human rights law.  International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, provides protection for civilian objects such as school buildings from all parties to an armed conflict.  International human rights law, which is applicable at times of war as well as peace, provides for the right to education.

The HRW’s survey revealed that only 27 out of the 56 countries surveyed had domestic legislation explicitly criminalising intentional attacks on schools.

These legal protections are frequently violated during armed conflicts, particularly during so-called non-international (internal) armed conflicts between states and rebel groups.

Attacks on buildings dedicated to education are not just attacks on buildings; they are an attack on the right to education as these can lead to children dropping out of school, reduced school enrollment, lower rates of transition to higher education, and poorer educational outcomes.

Government action

Since December 2008, schools have been attacked in at least 16 armed conflicts around the globe.  Between December 2008 and July 2011, schools have been attacked in Afghanistan, Burma, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Thailand, Yemen etc. During the same period, government forces or non-state armed groups have used or occupied schools in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand, India etc

Opposition armed groups are primarily responsible for such attacks, because they view schools as symbols of the government or oppose educational practices such as schooling for girls.

The government’s failure to repair the bombed schools promptly prolongs the negative impact of these attacks on children’s education. 

Governments have been slow to update and align their domestic legislation with the explicit prohibitions on attacks on schools under international criminal law, Human Rights Watch said. 

Indian case

Armed Maoists – known locally as Naxalites — a longstanding, pan-Indian armed militant movement, continue to target and blow up state-run schools in India. Human Rights Watch has documented that at least 36 schools in Jharkhand and 23 schools in Bihar were attacked during 2009. 

Despite directives from the Indian central government, state courts, and the Supreme Court, police and paramilitary security forces have carried out short-term and long-term occupation of schools in India. 


The report recommends measures to curb the impact of militancy on schools. It urges nations to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court According to which an intentional attack on any building dedicated to education is a war crime if the building is not a military objective.

The report emphasises on the need for countries to consider enacting domestic legislation or instituting regulations that would prohibit armed forces and armed groups from using or occupying schools, school grounds, or other education facilities in a manner that either violates the international humanitarian law.

All feasible precautions to protect civilian population and objects should be taken and it should be ensured that all violators of international and domestic protections for school and other buildings dedicated to education are held to accountable in criminal court, the report recommends.

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