Two members of Ansaroul Islam, an armed Islamist group in Burkina Faso, were recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for a 2018 attack on a primary school. Victims of the attack welcomed the verdict, which provided some rare accountability for attacks on education. But the proceedings were marked by more than three years of pre-trial detention, and trial observers indicated the defendants were not informed in court of their right to legal counsel under the law. As governments work to eradicate violence against education, accountability should not come at the cost of fair justice.
“It’s a good thing to have these trials,” the school’s former principal told me after the verdict. He had previously recounted how six armed men had showed up at the school, blindfolded him, kicked him in the head, stole his belongings, and burned his house to the ground. Human Rights Watch documented scores of other attacks in which armed Islamist groups killed, beat, and abducted education professionals, burned and looted schools, and terrorized students.
Accountability for attacks on students, teachers, and schools during armed conflict is exceedingly rare. Human Rights Watch has documented only a handful of such prosecutions around the world, despite explicit legal protections for students and schools during wartime dating back centuries.
Through the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment endorsed by Burkina Faso and 110 other countries, governments commit to investigate and prosecute violations of national and international law against educational institutions and personnel.
Attacks on civilians by armed groups in Burkina Faso, including on education, continue to this day. Trials can play a role in deterrence, but they need to ensure respect for due process and fully comply with international fair trial standards. By holding some perpetrators of the 2018 attack to account, Burkina Faso authorities signaled that targeting teachers, students, and schools carries serious consequences under the law.
Also critical is that the government assist victims, another commitment under the Safe Schools Declaration. Survivors of education-related attacks in Burkina Faso, such as the former principal, said they desperately needed psychosocial support and compensation for losses. “It’s very difficult for me,” he said. “I still teach, but I can’t forget.”
On the International Day to Protect Education from Attack, September 9, all governments should commit to redoubling their efforts to protect students, teachers, and schools from harm, and ensure justice and support for victims.