37 states agree to protect universities and schools in war

University World News, May 29, 2015

By Brenden O’Malley

Thirty-seven states have signed a landmark international commitment to protect schools and universities from attack and military use during conflict.

At a conference hosted by the Norwegian government and Norwegian civil society on 29 May, the countries agreed to support and promote a Safe Schools Declaration that also covers universities. 

The Declaration is the result of a process initiated by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack in 2012, and led by the governments of Norway and Argentina since 2014.

“Targeted attacks on education are robbing a generation of the chance to realise their potential, with a huge long-term social cost,” said Diya Nijhowne, the Coalition director. “The countries adopting the Declaration are making a commitment to take concrete action to protect students and their education in times of conflict.”

Campaigners are hoping large number of countries signing the declaration will create a groundswell of international support to change the behaviour of armies and armed forces on the battlefield – just as the international anti-landmines campaign did in the 1990s.

Among the countries supporting the Declaration were many which have been affected by attacks on education, including Afghanistan, Côte D’Ivoire, Nigeria and Palestine.

Some major European powers also made the commitment, including Italy and Spain.

Notable by their absence were the major military powers, the United States, UK, France, Russia and Turkey.

States that have suffered numerous attacks on education in recent years but didn’t sign include Iraq, Pakistan, South Sudan and Yemen.

Safe Schools Declaration

By signing the Declaration, governments agree to:

  • Implement new Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict by building them into domestic policy and operational frameworks for military forces. The guidelines urge parties to armed conflict not to use schools and universities for any purpose in support of the military effort.
  • Collect reliable data on attacks on educational facilities, victims of the attacks, and on military use of schools and universities during armed conflict; and provide assistance to the victims.
  • Investigate allegations of violations of national and international law in relation to such attacks on schools and universities or military use, and prosecute perpetrators.
  • Develop and adopt conflict-sensitive approaches to education, including in humanitarian programmes. 
  • Seek to ensure the continuation of education during armed conflict and prevent and respond to attacks on education.
  • Support the UN Security Council’s efforts on children and armed conflict, and those of other relevant UN representatives and agencies.
  • Meet regularly to review the implementation of the Declaration and the use of the Guidelines.

The recent attack on Garissa University College in north-east Kenya, when 148 people, most of them students, were killed by militants from the Somali armed group al-Shabaab is just one example of thousands of attacks on schools and universities – or incidents of military use of such facilities – in the past 10 years. 

Education under Attack 2014, a study published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, found that in 13 countries there were 500 or more attacks on schools, universities, staff and students; or 500 or more attacks on students, teachers or other education personnel or education buildings attacked or used for military purposes during 2009-12.

Higher education facilities were attacked in at least 17 countries: Afghanistan, Côte D’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The attacks included bombings of campuses and research laboratories, the targeting of students taking exams en masse with explosions, and the individual assassination of students and academics.

The Education under Attack study found that some of the most serious incidents involved raids by security forces or armed groups on student dormitories or other forms of residence in Côte D’Ivoire, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria. 

Two of those countries signed the declaration and a test of their commitment will be whether they prevent such attacks by their own forces in future.

Armed groups consulted

The Guidelines are intended to apply to non-state armed groups as well as government armed forces. In November 2014, the Guidelines were presented for discussion at a meeting of representatives from 35 non-state armed groups from 14 countries organised by Geneva Call, an organisation that engages non-state armed groups to respect international humanitarian norms. 

In a declaration adopted at the end of the meeting, the non-state armed groups said they would take the Guidelines into consideration and expressed appreciation that non-state armed groups were being recognised as stakeholders in the effort to protect students and their education.

Long-term impact

In areas where attacks are persistent they are often persistent over many years and violence may be used to block recovery from attack.

So their significance has to be measured not only by the immediate number of dead and injured, but also by the long-term impact on education and its capacity to help societies rebuild and consolidate peace after war.

“Attacks have a multiplier effect, making parents across the surrounding area fearful of sending their children to school; many or all college students may drop out permanently. Teachers may go into hiding or leave the area altogether,” said Nijhowne. “Governments will shelve investment and repairs. Entire cohorts of children or university students can miss out on their education.”

Can anything be done to prevent such attacks or respond to them?

One way, say campaigners, is to try to persuade governments and armed forces – and even armed groups – to do more to protect schools and universities and change the way they operate on the battlefield, by avoiding the use of schools and universities for military purposes. 

This means not using them as bases, barracks, firing positions or detention centres, all of which can make them a target of attack by the opposing forces.

Currently such practices are widespread – Education under Attack 2014 found reports of close to 2,000 schools having been used in this way in 15 countries in 2009-12. 

In Yemen, for instance, the breakway First Armoured Division forces occupied Sana’a University Old Campus in 2011, halting university life for 10 months. 

In Somalia university campuses were used by al-Shabaab, as well as by African Union forces in the international peace-keeping force, AMISOM, and by government troops, particularly during the 2012 military campaigns that drove al-Shabaab out of their strongholds.

In a recent study, Lessons in War, the Coalition found that schools and universities have been used for military purposes by government forces and non-state armed groups in 26 countries since 2005 – the majority of countries with an armed conflict during this period. 

“Even though the Guidelines are flexible, some countries have been concerned about constraints on their armed forces,” Nijhowne said. “But the countries supporting the Safe Schools Declaration are making it clear that protecting education is a priority and that the work starts here to turn words into action.”

Thirty-seven states

The full list of countries which signed the Declaration is: Afghanistan, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Czech Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Honduras, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Jordan, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Montenegro, Mozambique, Nigeria, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay and Zambia.

“For 37 states to commit to support the Declaration is a very significant step forward. It builds on the UN’s increased commitment to reporting and taking action on the issue of attacks on schools in recent years. It may help create a groundswell of support internationally that will bring other states on board,” said Nijhowne.

“There are some key states in that list where there have been many attacks on education in recent years, such as Afghanistan and Nigeria, where we shall now be watching with interest to see how well they can implement the commitment to protect schools and universities – and ultimately save the lives of students and teachers.”