Canada Acts to Restrict Use of Schools by Military

Human Rights Watch, February 22, 2017

By Zama Coursen-Neff, Executive Director, Children’s Rights Division

Canada has long been at the forefront of advocating for respect for humanity in war, and by signing the Safe Schools Declaration yesterday, took an important step toward making the lives of children in conflict safer.  It became the 59th country to sign the declaration.

The Safe Schools Declaration is a political commitment by countries to support the protection of students, teachers, schools, and universities from attack during armed conflict. Signatories pledge to try to restore access to education when schools are destroyed and to deter attacks by investigating and prosecuting war crimes involving schools, and minimizing the use of schools for military purposes so they do not become targets for attack.

Canada signed on “to say loud and clear that schools should never be used in conflict situations, whether to store munitions, detain prisoners, or serve as bases” said International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

Countries from every region have endorsed the declaration, including most European Union countries and NATO members.

Canada’s timing is important: in late March countries from around the world will convene in Buenos Aires for the first time since the declaration was launched by Norway and Argentina in 2015. Governments will share their efforts to put their pledges into effect. The Canadian government says it will use the declaration to “inform the planning and conduct of the Canadian Armed Forces during armed conflict.” A first step would be to change its military regulations to say explicitly that its armed forces won’t use schools for military purposes.

Canada’s signing of the Safe Schools Declaration – along with France, which also signed yesterday – sends a powerful message worldwide of the importance of protecting children in wartime.  Countries that haven’t yet signed will increasingly look to be the outlier, and should make the declaration a priority.