Interview with Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict
Sshe recently spoke with EduInfo in New York about attacks on schools and other grave violations against children.
Radhika Coomaraswamy was appointed to her position by the UN Secretary-General and serves as a moral voice and independent advocate for the rights and protection of children affected by armed conflict
A lawyer and internationally known human rights advocate, Ms Coomaraswamy previously served as Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Sri Lanka and Special Rapporter on Violence against Women. Ms Coomaraswamy has published widely in the fields of constitutional law, the status of women and ethnic studies, and is the recipient of many awards.
Attacks on schools are among the grave violations covered in the Secretary-General’s annual report published last month. Are we witnessing an escalation of such attacks?
Our Report covers six grave violations of international humanitarian law, of which attacks on schools and hospitals are one. The increasing number of incidents of violence directed against schools, teachers and girls going to school is an alarming new development. We are very concerned about attacks on schools by aerial bombardment, the direct targeting of schools, teachers and students, or the use of schools for military activities. These attacks represent a violation of international humanitarian law and perpetrators must be held accountable for such actions.
In terms of grave violations against children in situations of armed conflicts, are we seeing any change?
Humanitarian law is clear and a framework is in place for dealing with violations. The passage of Security Council Resolution 1612 in 2005 established a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the use of child soldiers and other violations committed against children affected by armed conflict. Progress has been made with regards to child soldiers, with six parties removed from the UN’s ‘list of shame’ this year. But the report continues to present a disturbing picture of grave violations committed against children around the globe. The Security Council must now take measures against those who have repeatedly flaunted its resolutions and who continue to recruit and use children.
The UN General Assembly thematic debate held in New York last March on education in emergencies called upon States to increase the protection of education during conflict and to regard attacks on schools as war crimes, which is not yet the case. We could push for a General Assembly Resolution that specifically condemns attacks against schools rather than grouping them with ‘other civilian objects’.
What is your reading of attacks on schools?
At some point we have to deal with the fundamental issue that some people believe that girls should not go to school, that science should not be taught to girls or that government secular education is evil. We must find strategies to counter those fundamental prejudices. This is a big task that cannot only be addressed at UN level. It is also about getting a majority of people living in places where schools are being attacked to continue believing in education and advocating for it.
When I was in Afghanistan I spoke with Aisha, a ten-year old girl. Her parents’ house was damaged in an aerial bombardment; she lost several relatives; her school was attacked and some of her teachers were killed. She told me how she was determined to go back to school and did. She said that school gave her courage and a sense of strength and security. In North Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I met with a 12-year-old girl who had joined the Mai Mai militia because her parents could no longer pay for school and because she thought carrying a gun would protect her from being raped. However, as with thousands of other children in Congo, she was sexually violated and abused by her commanders. Recently Mai Mai groups have entered into the peace process and Adila was released. She is now in an NGO Transit Centre and has just gone back to school. Her eyes lit up when she told me that she plans to be a school teacher.
Education is not yet a high priority in many humanitarian crises. How do you make a case for it?
The basic attitude is that if you have a humanitarian crisis, the immediate response is usually about food, shelter, water sanitation and if possible health issues. But emergency programs should also include education for children because it is a fundamental right and because it helps the situation. Children need safety and routine. This can prevent them from being recruited into armed groups. It is known that refugee camps and camps for internally displaced people are one of the main recruiting grounds because kids drift away and have nothing to do. Former child soldiers have also testified how going back to school has helped them to build trust and regain a sense of humanity. It is important to advance the notion of schools as zones of peace that all parties respect and where kids can feel secure.
How do you explain that education is such an underfunded part of humanitarian response?
I think because donors see emergency as one thing and development as another, and education is generally categorized as the latter. This is the reason why children fall between the cracks as in many cases, they need both. For example, child soldiers need to be followed through from reconstruction to development. We are pushing for education to be an integral part of emergency programmatic planning and response.
How can education heal rather than perpetuate intolerance?
We must ensure that education works towards bringing peace in a society. In countries torn by tribal and ethnic conflict, education can create many obstacles to peace. Curricula can instil hatred of the other by maintaining certain myths. This is why emergency education should be quality education that helps to build more peaceful attitudes. Encouraging a curriculum reform process during post-conflict reconstruction is vital. The UN must be attentive to this in funding programs. There are cases of post-conflict education that now serve as models. Liberia and Sierra Leone for instance have done a lot of things right in peacebuilding through education; the reconciliation process in South Africa is another positive example.