A Bright Spot in a Year of Gloomy News on Education

Celebrating Six Years of the Safe Schools Declaration
Transit Magazine, May 29, 2021

Marika Tsolakis and Jerome Marston
Senior Researchers, Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack

May 29th is the sixth anniversary of the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment Norway co-led with Argentina and championed around the world. Since May 2015, 108 countries have endorsed the Declaration and committed to protecting schools, universities, students, and educators in times of war.

Now, more than ever, Norwegians should celebrate this significant milestone. After all, their government has led a global effort to ensure that students and teachers around the world are spared the worst effects of armed violence. The Safe Schools Declaration is one of several bright spots in international development news, alongside other Norway-supported efforts such as bringing distance learning technologies to children during Covid-19 school closures.

When Covid-19 forced schools around the world to close, denying over 1.5 billion students access to education, many children in conflict zones had already missed out on months or years of education, or had to risk their lives to continue learning. Their schools were burned, bombed, or used by military forces as barracks. And their teachers and peers were abducted, threatened, or killed for their status as teachers or educators.

Between 2015 and 2019, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) identified over 11,000 reported attacks on education around the world, which affected over 22,000 students, teachers, and education personnel. Attacks on schools and university facilities occurred on a near daily basis in countries like Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And in recent weeks, airstrikes damaged at least 50 schools in Palestine.  

In 34 countries, military forces and armed groups used schools as barracks, bases, training grounds, sniper posts, or detention centers. Such use turns schools into targets and endangers the lives of students, teachers, and communities.

Attacks on education and military use continued during Covid-19. Paramilitaries and armed groups took advantage of empty schools, using them as bases or to lay explosives for enemy forces. And where in-person learning continued, abductions of schoolchildren persisted.

Through its work on the Safe Schools Declaration, Norway has helped to make schools safer during a year of bad news. It has urged other countries to endorse the Declaration, encouraged governments to carry out their commitments under the Declaration, and created a global community to join forces in ending attacks on education. 

By endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, governments commit to keep schools safe from attack and occupation. When attacks do happen, governments agree to respond effectively. Concrete steps include monitoring and investigating attacks and prosecuting  those responsible, ensuring continued education for affected students, and updating military manuals and training  to respect the sanctity of schools and universities.

These are not empty promises—governments are already following through on their commitments. Several countries, including Norway, have updated either their military manuals or military policies to include protections for schools from military occupation. Last year the Central African Republic criminalized the occupation of schools. And during the pandemic, in Mali, the Ministry of Education issued a letter reminding the Ministry of Defense to refrain from using schools vacant due to Covid-19.

In our own research, we have observed a downward trend in the military use of schools and universities in some countries that endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration early on. In Afghanistan, for example, military occupation of schools decreased from over 40 cases in 2016 to only five in 2018 and three in 2020; this decline occurred even as Afghanistan continued to experience high levels of armed violence, suggesting that the reduction may be more than mere coincidence.

With support from Norway, other governments, and GCPEA, Nigeria will host the Fourth International Conference on Safe Schools this coming October. Governments, UN agencies, and civil society organizations will come together to galvanize support for protecting students and educators during wartime through the Safe Schools Declaration.                

At this Conference, Norway is also set to introduce the Safe Schools Declaration Implementation Network. The Network—a forum for endorsing governments to meet—supports government ministries working to protect education from attack by sharing good practices and overcoming common challenges.

We congratulate Norway for its actions to protect education during wartime and hope the government will continue to build on its successes. As a newly elected member of the United Nations Security Council, Norway has the opportunity to highlight how the Safe Schools Declaration can be used as a tool to prevent grave violations against children in armed conflict. And Norway can encourage universal endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration starting with the European Union governments by persuading Latvia, Lithuania, and Hungary to endorse.