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Maoist insurgents and government security forces in India should respect children’s safety and right to education by keeping schools off-limits in the weeks before the April and May 2014 national elections, Human Rights Watch said today. The Maoists, also known as “Naxalites,” should cease all attacks on schools. Government security forces should not occupy schools as barracks or bases, which puts children at risk.

On March 21, Maoist fighters attacked two schools in Jharkhand state, and distributed pamphlets instructing villagers to boycott the elections, the Hindustan Times reported. Three months before the last national elections, in 2009, the Maoists conducted a spate of school attacks, at least 14 of them were in Jharkhand and Bihar states. Government security forces have also previously deployed inside schools for security before elections, interfering with children’s right to education.

“The Maoists have repeatedly escalated their violence against schools before elections,” said Bede Sheppard, deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Both the Maoists and the government need to recognize the importance of education for India’s children and respect the civilian nature of schools, which should neither be attacked nor militarized.”

India’s Supreme Court in 2010 called on the government to ensure that “school buildings … are not allowed to be occupied by the armed or security forces in future for whatsoever purpose.” Yet as recently as July 2013, Human Rights Watch found armed state police partially occupying Chonha Middle School in Gaya district in Bihar.

In 2011, the United Nations Security Council announced that governments and armed groups that carry out attacks on schools will be added to the secretary-general’s annual “list of shame” of parties who commit violations against children during armed conflict. The Security Council may subject parties who attack these institutions to sanctions, including arms embargoes, travel bans, and asset freezes against the individuals responsible for violations. The Security Council may also refer them to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution. 

Deliberate attacks on schools that are not military objectives can also constitute war crimes under international humanitarian law.

On March 7, 2014, the Security Council stated that the use of schools for military purposes, such as for barracks or bases by security forces, endangers children’s and teachers’ safety as well as children’s education. The Security Council also called for enhanced international monitoring and reporting of such use of schools.

“When schools are attacked, the Indian government should be prepared so that children’s education is not unnecessarily disrupted,” Sheppard said. “They should have a plan ready so that children have temporary facilities and replacement education materials quickly available.”

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