Every child in every country should feel safe and secure in school. No right-minded person would disagree with such a simple, fair and just idea.
That is why we are all shocked and appalled by the Taliban’s attack on innocent pupils in Peshawar, Pakistan on 16 December.
But unfortunately the brutal attack in Pakistan is not a one off: schools are targeted in bloody conflicts across the world, from Syria to Nigeria. It must stop.
Guidelines for protecting schools
On the very day of the Pakistan school attack last week, we made a key step in the right direction.
Some 40 countries, led by Norway and Argentina, together with ten international organisations, met in Geneva to increase the protection of children in conflict and unveil the “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict“.
Some 29 countries have already made public statements in support of these Guidelines; as have a number of armed non-state actors.
What we witnessed in Peshawar must make more nations join in solidarity with this cause and make similar calls to action. None more so than the UK Government.
I urge Britain to make a statement in support of the Guidelines, and show leadership by stating that the UK’s military policy and practice already complies with the Guidelines and outlining any further steps that Britain will take to implement or promote the Guidelines.
Standing up for a child’s right to education
The attack in Peshawar came a week after we applauded Malala’s peace prize award, herself a victim of the Taliban’s crusade against education, for standing up for a child’s right to go to school but to also feel safe in doing so.
Malala’s plight, her award, and now this fresh attack, has brought international attention to the prevalence of attacks on education around the world and particularly the scale of the issue in Pakistan where (along with Afghanistan) there have been more attacks on education annually than almost anywhere else in the world.
Between 2009 and 2012, over 838 attacks on schools in Pakistan have left hundreds of schools destroyed and claimed the lives of even more Pakistani students and teachers.
A regular and disturbing occurrence
While the Pakistan school attack is one of the worst we have seen, the reality is that this style of attack, where students and schools are seen as strategic targets in military operations, is a regular and disturbing occurrence – in the past five years, there have been a staggering 9,500 attacks on schools in 70 countries.
When I think of what has happened in Pakistan, it reminds me of school attacks in Syria and, in particular, the double school bombing in Homs where 41 children were killed and the children’s art exhibition attack where 33 children also lost their lives.
It also makes me ponder the 153 Syrian school children kidnapped as they walked home after taking their school exams in May this year, most of whom were not released until many months later and some are still held hostage. And, we cannot forget the hundreds of schools girls taken in Nigeria, who to this day are still to be found.
A turning point?
When I read the reports on the Pakistan attack and the eyewitness accounts of how children and teachers were systematically targeted and the countless atrocities that occurred, it is hard to not agree that we are at a turning point and we must do all we can to stop attacks on school children and schools.
The spotlight on this issue could not be brighter and the call on the international community to once and for all protect education from attack is stronger than ever.
We must do more and we have to do more. Children in every corner of the world must be able to leave for school in the morning secure in the knowledge that when they are in class they will be safe. This is their right.
This blog post first appeared in the Huffington Post