The ongoing conflict in Cameroon has been characterized by a rising spate of the burning down of schools, in addition to the premeditated prevention of children from attending school.
This fact is particularly telling, considering that we are only a couple of weeks from the start of the new school years and while back to school may take off effectively in the eight predominantly Francophone regions of the country, children in the North West and South West may continue to be held down as hostages against their will.
The burning of schools has been great cause for concern indeed. In some cases, teachers and other staff members who work in schools have been directly threatened. As if that was not enough, those pulling the strings are still calling for more schools – or those which attempt to open their doors for children to gain access to education which is their inalienable right – to be set ablaze and razed to the ground.
To the advocates of this scorched earth policy, the more schools that are destroyed, the merrier, which is why they rejoice, each time yet another school is set alight. Yet, perpetrators of the acts appear not to know that not only does the United Nations regard schools and places of religious worship as sacrosanct and therefore excluded from attack – even in times of conflict or war – but the world governing body is also keen to fish out people who violate this sanctity so that they can face the law. In other words, the long arm of the law may eventually reach out and compel some arsonists or architects therefore to face trial against war crimes or crimes against humanity. To paraphrase this, nothing, even in times of war justifies the burning down of schools or the willful prevention of children from going to school.
That is why a recent UN report states: “Attacks on schools and hospitals during conflict is one of the six grave violations identified and condemned by the UN Security Council.” The report which is entitled “Attacks on Hospitals and Schools: Protecting Children Now” and published in 2013 by the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict”, also says: “Schools and hospitals must be zones of peace, where children are granted protection even in times of conflict. Yet, there is an increasing trend of schools and hospitals being attacked with detrimental effects on children. Apart from the direct and physical damage to schools and hospitals, conflict can result in the forced closure or the disrupted functioning of these institutions. Children, teachers, doctors and nurses are also subject to threats by parties to conflict if suspected, for example, to support the other party in the conflict.”
The UN report warns that “under international humanitarian law, both schools and hospitals are protected civilian objects, and therefore benefit from the humanitarian principles of distinction and proportionality. The international body regrets that “direct physical attacks and the closure of these institutions as a result of direct threats have since 2011 been added as triggers for inclusion on the list of the Secretary-General of parties to conflict committing grave violations against children in armed conflict”
In response to the violation, the UN Security Council announced a certain number of measures: “In 2011, by adopting resolution 1998, the Security Council gave the United Nations a mandate to identify and list, in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict, the armed forces and groups who attack schools or hospitals, or protected persons in relation to schools and hospitals. The resolution asked listed parties to conflict to work with the United Nations to prepare concrete, time-bound action plans to end and prevent the violations. This is crucial to ensure children can enjoy their rights to education and health and that violators no longer enjoy impunity.”
In a section entitled: `Act to Protect: Guidance Note on Attacks against Schools and Hospitals`, the report warns: “with our partners, we are strengthening our capacity to monitor and report incidents affecting children’s right to health and education in situations of conflict.”
The report concludes on an upbeat note: “The world has denounced the recruitment of child soldiers; the world has decried sexual violence in conflict. We now have to condemn and take action against attacks on schools and hospitals with the same strength and conviction.” So, if we are to continue to encourage the burning of more schools in Cameroon and insist on blocking children from going to school, we should know that the United Nations is watching and there may be no escape from the consequences. The arm of the law is long.
By Tikum Mbah Azonga
Lecturer – Mass Communication at Saint Monica University
Founder, President & Board Chairman at INSTITUTE OF VOCATIONAL AND PROFESSIONAL TRAINING (IVPROT)
Former Journalist at CRTV