The now-incarcerated Bosco Ntaganda, the former rebel commander in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been accused by Human Rights Watch of forcibly recruiting at least 149 boys and young men into his forces. Ntaganda’s forces would take children from schools, their homes or from roadsides. They were then given either rudimentary military training or forced to carry ammunition and weaponry to the frontlines. Many were forced to wear military uniforms, thus making them easily-recognizable targets.
“There were so many of them,” said a 17-year-old student of a secondary school where Ntaganda conscripted more than 32 male students. “They tied my hands with a rope. All of us were tied up. Then they marched us to the hill….They told us we would fight for Bosco.”
In response to situations such as this, Human Rights Watch and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack are calling on the international community to protect educational institutions from being used as instruments of war. To help to make the case for the protection of schools, HRW has released a video in six languages on the impact of the militarizing of schools on children.
The video features footage of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban for advocating the teaching of girls, inspecting her father’s school after discovering that it has been occupied by the Pakistani military while the family was exiled from the Swat Valley.
As argued by Human Rights Watch, when a school is used as a militarized building, it is not being used as a tool of learning. Schools being used for military purposes turn all educational facilities in the region into possible targets of attack, jeopardizing the safety of teachers and students. The military use of schools and universities denies access to learning opportunities — which undermines students, teachers and the community’s health. The presence of military troops near villages that would host schools places a greater risk on girls of rape or abduction, and could permanently mitigate their chances to an education. Damage to the facilities from military use are likely not to be repaired and students stand a greater chance of being forced into service.
“Schools should be filled with students, not soldiers,” said Bede Sheppard, deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “When armed forces take over schools, they put children and their education in the line of fire.”
Military use of schools is frowned upon, but not altogether illegal under international law. Rules 22 through 24 of the Customary International Humanitarian Law state that parties to an armed conflict are required, to the best of their ability, to avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas, including where schools and universities are likely to be located. The Fourth Geneva Convention mandates, as well, that during international armed conflicts, national and local authorities must “facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.”
The problem lies in the fact that those most likely to violate this decree are not signatories to the treaties outlawing the militarization of schools and are less likely to yield to international pressure for humanitarian violations. These treaties also offer weak enforcement options, leaving the individual parties the responsibility of self-enforcement.
While child soldiers have always existed — the etymology of the word “infantry,” for example, refers to a group of children — the escalation of the use and number of young combatants in recent years has caused pause in light of the repeated cycle of war and destruction that not only endangers innocent lives, but destroys communities’ chances of improving their quality of life.
One example, as reported in Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack’s “Lessons in War,” illustrates the need to separate schools from war zones: “In Somalia, al-Shabaab militants have systematically used schools as recruiting grounds. The militants regularly visit schools and forcibly remove children individually, often at gunpoint, from classrooms. On other occasions, they have lined up students and selected children they deem fit to serve as fighters, suicide bombers, ‘wives,’ or for domestic duties, and have taken them back to their training camps.”
In a recent Human Rights Watch report, a 16-year-old student is quoted: “They target schools as they see them as recruiting grounds, but also because they see school and education as a waste of time.”
Xarid, an 18-year-old speaking of his experiences with his school being militarized, told Human Rights Watch that Al-Shabaab fighters set up a surface-to-air rocket launcher and began launching from inside the school compound. Return fire from outside the school left eight students dead.
A conscious effort must be made to protect children — not only from the immediate threat of gunfire, but from the indirect threats of loss of education and opportunity. Ultimately, as it has been said countless times before, a country survives on the strength of its children.