Over the weekend, Maoist insurgents torched a tent and a generator at Sondaha primary school in India’s Bihar state, where police were planning to stay during the upcoming national elections, the United News of India reported.
It isn’t the first time. The Maoists have repeatedly committed violence against schools in the run-up to elections in India. They attacked at least two schools before national elections in 2014, and in 2009, carried out at least 14 attacks on schools in Jharkhand and Bihar states.
Deliberate attacks on schools that are not being used for military purposes can be war crimes under international humanitarian law.
But the police should not have been using the school in the first place. Though government security forces have been deployed inside schools for security before elections in the past, India’s Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered the government to ensure school buildings are not occupied by security forces for any purpose.
There has also been increasing international recognition that parties should refrain from using schools for military purposes. In 2014, the United Nations 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. In 2015, it encouraged all countries “to take concrete measures to deter such use of schools by armed forces and armed groups.”
Guidance on how countries can better protect schools is included in the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration, developed under the leadership of the governments of Norway and Argentina. To date, 84 countries have endorsed the declaration. Disappointingly, India is not among them. But there is time for that to change before the declaration’s supporting countries meet at the Third International Safe Schools Conference in May, to discuss what more can be done to keep students, teachers, and schools safe even during times of armed conflict.
Bad history shouldn’t repeat itself every election. Maoist insurgents and government security forces in India should respect children’s safety and right to education by keeping schools off-limits – not only in the weeks before national elections – but at all times.