January 11, 2018

Children are 'disposable' victims of illegal attacks on Syrian schools

A child is rescued after an attack in Eastern Ghouta

Photo credit: Ghouta Media Center

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Human Rights Watch has demanded that Syrian and Russian forces stop targeting schools and says the UN Security Council must take urgent action.

A human rights group today condemned Syrian and Russian forces for "indiscriminate" attacks on schools and for regarding the lives of children as "utterly disposable".

Eight children were killed when four schools were damaged or destroyed in Eastern Ghouta, near the Syrian capital Damascus.

“Syrian and Russian forces appear to view the lives of children in Eastern Ghouta as utterly disposable,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. 

“The UN Security Council should demand an immediate end to all unlawful attacks, not least those killing children and destroying schools, under threat of targeted sanctions against those responsible.”

Their News reported on the school attacks in late October and November. And our Safe Schools petition calls on the permanent members of the UN Security Council to sign the Safe Schools Declaration - a commitment to protect education from attack and stop military use of schools.

Of the five permanent members, only France has signed. The others - Russia, China, the United States and United Kingdom - are not among the 71 nations who have backed the declaration.

Human Rights Watch said today the attacks by Syrian-Russian forces in Eastern Ghouta - which has been under siege by the Assad regime for four years - had resulted in the closing of schools and many children being deprived of education.

The organisation said it had interviewed witnesses and looked at pictures, videos and reports of the incidents.

"The attacks were apparently indiscriminate, in violation of the laws of war," it said.

The attacks happened on October 31 and November 8. The first one saw a shell hit the entrance to a primary school in Jisreen, killing six schoolboys and a man. 

Bahjat Abou Ali, director of a local centre of the Syria Civil Defense, told Human Rights Watch: "It was while students were on their way out of the school. It’s like they were waiting for the school bell to ring [to launch the attack]. 

Children in Eastern Ghouta are surrounded by destruction and war

Photo credit: UNICEF / Almohibany

"They were at the entrance of the school buying sweets from one of the merchants, who also died. ...  It was terrifying."

Only 30 minutes later, two mortar rounds landed on either side of a school in the town of Mesraba, killing two adults and two children. 

On November 8, two attacks - including at least one airstrike - destroyed a kindergarten in the town of Hamouriyeh and badly damaged two elementary schools in the towns of Saqba and Kafr Batna.

Their News also told in October how terrified children fled from a kindergarten in Kafr Batna after a bombing near the school. Following the attacks, public schools in Eastern Ghouta were shut down.

Warning: you may find this film distressing

Human Rights Watch said the laws of war specifically prohibit attacks on civilian targets such as schools - and that anyone carrying out such attacks should be prosecuted for war crimes.

Last year Gordon Brown - the UN Special Envoy for Global Education - announced an international inquiry to examine ways to protect children in conflicts and ensure those who attack or abuse them are held to account.

Human Rights Watch added: "Russia has repeatedly used its veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to block accountability for war crimes by all sides in the Syria conflict. Russia and Syria should end their unlawful attacks on schools and civilians. 

"The Security Council, which on December 19 renewed its mandate for cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of desperate Syrian civilians, should demand that the Syrian government immediately end unlawful restrictions on aid to Eastern Ghouta or face targeted sanctions against those responsible."

The six-year Syrian war has left more than 500,000 dead and over 12 million displaced from their homes. Half of all displaced children - inside Syria and living as refugees in host countries - are out of school, the UN said last month.

Read Human Rights Watch's detailed accounts of the attacks on schools in Eastern Ghouta.

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