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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 889


Mr ZIMMERMAN (North Sydney) (19:03): Can I start by commending the member for Werriwa for bringing forward this motion, which I think is an important one for this chamber and this parliament. It is imperative that governments unite to pursue strong international action to prevent all unlawful attacks on schools and other educational facilities in conflict zones. All Australians would be appalled, I think, that, in the 21st century, schools, child-care centres and universities are bombed, shelled and burned or used for military activities or recruitment. This has no place in modern society. Yet, tragically, we know that this is occurring in many conflict zones from Afghanistan to Syria to South Sudan. Indeed, instances of attacks on schools and students have been documented in 30 countries since 2010.

The actions of those engaged in military activity can have both immediate and longer term impacts on students and their places of study. Often schools and universities are commandeered by military forces. In some cases this occurs while schools are still operating and, remarkably, students are still present. The impact of such deployments can be devastating. Essential civilian infrastructure becomes overnight a military target. Students can find themselves literally in the firing line because what should be a sanctuary of learning has become the centre of a battle zone. Students and their teachers are often the casualties of war, and it is hard not to hypothesise that, at times, armed forces will use schools in the hope that the young students present will act as some kind of barbaric human shield. In some cases schools are deliberately targeted, even when not occupied by combatant forces. Such attacks are designed to demoralise and cause harm to civilians. I think we are seeing that most dramatically in Aleppo in recent times.

In addition to the loss of life, the use of education facilities during conflicts can have a devastating impact on the education infrastructure of a nation. The military occupation of education premises will often have the immediate impact of closing schools, denying their students an education, often for long periods. Their destruction as part of military conflict can take a generation to rebuild. The UN declaration on human rights says that education is a fundamental human right. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment, and yields important development benefits. During and in the aftermath of conflict, this right can be so easily extinguished, setting back the progress of both individuals and entire communities and nations.

We cannot and must not stand by as children in conflict zones around the world have their opportunities ruined. Schools and childcare centres should be places of friendship, learning and, above all, safety. They should not be places where students and educators live in fear of attack or have been captured by military forces. We must unite with our international counterparts to say that schools are no-go zone for conflict and military action of any kind.

I note that under international humanitarian law education facilities are ordinarily protected from military conflict as civilian sites and that the Australian government works extensively to encourage respect and adherence to those requirements of international law. I am proud of the fact that Australia, during its time as a member of the Security Council, so vigorously supported the adoption of resolution 2143. This was an important resolution from the Security Council which clearly sets out in strong terms the expectations of the global community in relation to the protection of children in armed conflicts. Clauses 16 to 18 of that resolution make clear that during conflicts and postconflict periods children should have access to health and education facilities. It reiterates that attacks on education institutions are contrary to international law. Resolutions such as this along with established international law provide a strong framework for responding to and deterring the military use of schools and universities.

Many NGOs working in Australia are also at the forefront of international efforts—for example, UNICEF, Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have been very active in trying to highlight concerns about this area. I am pleased that the government is supportive of the guidelines for protecting schools and universities from military use during armed conflict, which have been endorsed by the Safe Schools Declaration. I do understand, however, that the government does have some concerns about the language of the Safe Schools Declaration and its consistency with international humanitarian law. I would hope that these can be overcome.

Nonetheless, the sentiment of the motion of the member for Werriwa is an important one in reminding us all of the importance of international vigilance. More can be done and more must be done; that is stating the obvious. We must work with all governments around the world to prevent attacks on schools and condemn the use of school grounds and facilities for military action and training. They should be places of learning, not places of death and suffering.

Ms VAMVAKINOU: I am pleased to speak to the motion moved by the member for Fowler in relation to the Safe Schools Declaration. The declaration is committed to making schools safe from military action by encouraging member states to express broad political support for the protection and continuation of education in armed conflict and for protecting the civilian nature of schools.

I note that as of 20 January 2017 some 57 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration. Sadly, Australia is not one of those countries. It is disappointing, given that we are providing assistance already to foreign military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and we settle refugees from a large number of war zones, including Somalia, Sudan and, more recently, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Our world at the moment is a very dangerous and unsafe place, especially for children living in armed conflict zones, and for children, that fear for their life is extended to the classroom. Ordinarily a place of sanctuary, safety and learning, schools in war zones are being targeted for attack and being occupied by military forces. I speak on this motion because it is important to protect schools in order to secure a child's right to an education and to give children hope and the best possible chance of a future. These sentiments are passionately held by many of my constituents who have come to Australia as refugees.

Last Friday I attended the 2016 VCE and VCAL awards presentations at Sydenham catholic college and I had the honour of presenting the award of dux for the school year to Saad Al-Kassab, a refugee from Syria. Saad was only 14 when the civil war broke out in Syria, and he said:

During the Syrian Civil War, I—like most of the students in my city—was not able to attend school. I missed nearly two years of study. My school became an army base and snipers occupied the top of it, stealing lives and causing fear and not allowing even cats to pass through. Soon after, my school playground became a centre for shelling and bombing. They turned the school from a place that gives hope and life to a place that causes death and destruction. It was really heartbreaking for me to know that I will no longer be able to go to school, that not only my past is being destroyed but my future is being stolen as well.

According to UNICEF, the continuing war in Syria has seen thousands of schools damaged, destroyed, militarised and used as detention centres or shelters for displaced persons. Some 1.7 million Syrian children are out of school in their country due to the conflict. Aid organisations and human rights groups have pointed out that the dwindling school attendance rates, particularly in rebel-held areas, have pushed children into the labour market, fuelled displacement and, in the case of girls, led to disturbing increases in child marriage. But it is not just in Syria where children and schools are subjected to military attacks and violence.

The 2014 Israel-Gaza war took a heavy toll on Gaza's children. More than 500 were killed; 3,374 were injured, nearly one-third of whom suffered permanent disability; more than 1,500 were orphaned; and hundreds of thousands were left in trauma. During the 51-day conflict, 258 schools and kindergartens were damaged, including 26 schools that are beyond repair. Two years later Gaza's children and their families continue to suffer. The damage to school buildings has placed additional strain on the education system, which was already operating on double shifts before the war, with half the students attending in the morning and the other half attending in the afternoon because of a shortage of classroom space.

In Iraq, one in every five children is at serious risk of death, injury, sexual violence and recruitment into armed groups, with many children being snatched from school. Peter Hawkins, a representative from UNICEF, says:

The conflict is exposing children in Iraq to daily horrors. Unless addressed immediately, young minds, haunted by fear and hatred could slip into a spiral of despair, darkness and a sense of helplessness. Learning, playing and aspiring to a more prosperous future will be a thing of the past.

Children in war-torn countries are growing up associating schools with death and destruction instead of safety, nurturing and education. The impact armed conflict has on a country and its opportunity to rebuild after the atrocities of war is significant.

I call on the Australian government to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and to attend the March conference in Buenos Aires in order to work with governments internationally to discourage the military use of schools and promote security and practices that better protect schools. It is in the interests of children around the world that they have the right to safety and the right to an education.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Goodenough ): The debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.

Federation Chamber adjourned at 19:1 4