Endorsing Safe Schools Declaration important to protect children from horrors of armed conflict

Human Rights Watch, March 4, 2018

The past year has provided too many stark reminders of how children’s rights are threatened in humanitarian situations.

In Syria, Human Rights Watch has documented widespread enforced disappearances, torture and killings of children by government security forces. All sides have recruited and used child soldiers. Government forces repeatedly used chemical weapons. Airstrikes against schools and hospitals are almost routine. Displaced children in Idlib are living in dangerous conditions without adequate support. Eastern Ghouta has been called “hell on earth.” Yet Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have effectively closed their borders with Syria. Russia has abused its role on the Security Council to maintain impunity in Syria.

In Yemen, where millions of children are malnourished, the Saudi-led coalition has unlawfully restricted imports of civilian goods and opposing Houthi forces have confiscated humanitarian supplies. Up to a third of the fighters in Yemen are children. The Secretary General has listed both parties for grave violations against children, yet the United States, United Kingdom, and others continue to supply the coalition with munitions.

But there has also been progress worth highlighting. In the past year, 15 more countries endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, bringing the total number of endorsing states to 73—representing more than one third of the world. Countries that endorse the Declaration commit to common-sense measures to better protect students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict. Among these is to refrain from using schools for military purposes, such as converting schools into military barracks or bases, by using a set of Guidelines that helps armed forces ensure the protection of schools under both the existing humanitarian and human rights legal frameworks.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights has noted that “in the context of armed conflict, schools … should not be used by military forces for any purpose in support of their military effort,” and has recommended that all states join the Safe Schools Declaration.

The Declaration has already played a positive role in protecting students and schools in countries where attacks on students and schools have been frequent, including in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Somalia.

We urge States to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, encourage the EU and GRULAC to reflect these principles in their resolution on the rights of the child in humanitarian situations, and would welcome the panel’s views on how to build support for the Declaration, as an important and practical step to help protect children from the horrors of armed conflict.