Afghanistan’s schools and health facilities will be among the most dangerous places in the country this Saturday.
That’s because the government has designated hundreds of schools and dozens of clinics as polling centers for the April 5 presidential election despite the very real risk of Taliban attacks. This puts students, teachers, doctors, and patients at risk of death or injury before and during election day and possibly even long after.
The government should be well aware of the risks. The Taliban vowed in a statement last month to disrupt the presidential elections by “using all force at its disposal,” targeting “all its workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices,” in order to “stop the process of elections from taking place in mosques, clinics, schools, madrassas and other public places.”
Afghan schools were targets of 249 “security incidents” in the 2009 presidential elections. In the last five years, Afghanistan has recorded more than 1,000 school-related attacks. Armed groups, government forces, and international military forces have all used schools for military purposes. Attacks on health facilities have also been increasing, and clinics have been used for military operations, with pressure on medical staff to prioritize the treatment of some patients over others. On March 27, the primary school in Marghi in Spin Boldak district, which is a designated polling center, was attacked by insurgents. Luckily there were no casualties.
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. The Security Council may also refer them to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution. Deliberate attacks on health facilities and schools that are not military objectives can constitute war crimes under international humanitarian law.
The Taliban should end its despicable tactics of targeting civilians and civilian structures. But the government needs to take all feasible measures to protect these facilities from attack. The only surefire way of doing this is by not using at-risk schools or clinics as polling stations.
Until the government does so, election days in Afghanistan will continue to pose unacceptably high threats of violence to many students, teachers, healthcare workers, and their patients.