There’s a town in Africa that offers an amazing view of the Mongolian steppes.
The picturesque panorama is hand-painted on the patio wall of Rubkona Primary School, in a rural town in South Sudan. The flowing rivers on the wall contrast sharply with the country’s brown landscape during the dry season.
The school’s mural was the most artistic touch in a renovation project carried out by the Mongolian soldiers who make up the contingent of UN peacekeepers sent to protect civilians in the area. At a cost of about US$50,000, the Mongolians renovated nine classrooms and built three new ones. They installed electricity and lighting in all classrooms, and restored desks for the school’s 1,534 students.
At the re-opening ceremony for the school in October 2013, the Mongolian commanding officer, Colonel Tumendemberel explained that his battalion had chosen projects related to the education of children because they were South Sudan’s future presidents, parliamentarians, and governors.
Yet, less than two months after this ceremony, no child was attending Rubkona Primary School.
A brutal civil war erupted in South Sudan in December 2013, between forces within the army loyal to the president, Salva Kiir, and those loyal to the former deputy president, Riek Machar. The fighting started in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, but spread north quickly and reached Rubkona. Within weeks, soldiers from the pro-government side had set up inside the school’s classrooms and were using them as a barracks and a base. It wasn’t until November 2015 that the soldiers vacated the school and it was finally returned to the students.
The fate of Rubkona Primary School is sadly not unique. In wars around the world, government armed forces and non-state armed groups have taken over schools, pushing children out or putting them in the line of fire. Students, teachers, and schools have also been deliberately targeted for attack. Either way, education is a casualty of war.
That’s why countries from around the world will gather in Argentina on March 28-29, for an international conference demanding safe schools, even during times of war. Attending countries will consider supporting the Safe Schools Declaration—an international political commitment that decries attacks on students, teachers, and schools during war.
The declaration outlines a number of common-sense, yet concrete, measures that governments can take to make it less likely that schools will be attacked, and that would mitigate the negative consequences when such attacks occur.
Countries that have signed the Safe Schools Declaration seek to deter attacks by making a commitment to investigate and prosecute war crimes involving schools. And they agree to minimize the use of schools for military purposes, such as for barracks or bases, so as to not convert schools into targets for attack.
The declaration builds an international community committed to respecting the civilian nature of schools, and developing and sharing examples of the best practices for protecting schools from attack and military use.
So far, 57 countries have already endorsed this declaration. Will Mongolia?
Mongolian forces that take part in peacekeeping missions already have made a commitment not to use schools in their military operations. And through their support for schools such as Rubkona Primary School, they have already signaled their support for children’s right to education, even in countries affected by armed conflict.
In March in Argentina, Mongolia’s government can show its support too, by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration. Given Mongolian peacekeepers’ efforts in Africa, it should be an easy choice.