Matthews & Schouela: Protecting schools during wartime

National Post, June 16, 2015

By Kyle Matthews and Noah Schouela

Though not widely reported in mainstream North American media, representatives from over 60 countries recently met in Norway to attend the “Oslo Conference on Safe Schools.” The high-level meeting sought to achieve international consensus on a growing global problem: the protection of students and educational facilities from attacks.

The two-day initiative was strengthened and concluded by the signing of the Safe School Declaration by 37 states, indicating a commitment to abide by the “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.” This latter document, drafted by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, recognizes that “where educational facilities are used for military purposes it can increase the risk of the recruitment and use of children by armed actors or may leave children and youth vulnerable to sexual abuse or exploitation.”

The global impetus for safe school initiatives is certainly not unwarranted. In April 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria which caught the world’s attention and led to the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign. Last December, the Taliban’s attack in Peshawar, Pakistan killed 132 students at the Army Public School. In April 2015, the Somali terrorist group known as Al-Shabaab attacked a university in Garissa, Kenya killing 147, in which exclusively non-Muslim students were singled out and executed.

In the last quarter century, conflicts in over 30 countries have involved recurrent attacks on schools and subsequent adoption of these facilities into military “bases, barracks, firing positions and armouries.” What is most astonishing, and disturbing, is that the militarization of schools technically renders them, under international law, legitimate targets for attack “even if students and teachers remain on site.”

Some the world’s largest NGOs have raised their voices, noting “the international community must step up to ensure that schools are taken out of the battlefield and treated as sanctuaries.” Human Rights Watch has published numerous reports on the topic and has vocally condemned both state and opposition parties for their part in endangering the lives of students, teachers and the institution of education in fragile countries. For its part, UNICEF operates multiple school-oriented programs, which act as a “powerful first response and strategy in facilitating access to protective learning environments for millions of children.” The UN also appointed a Special Envoy for Global Education, led by former-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, mandated with monitoring and reporting on schools under attack. Finally, Geneva Call, an NGO, works with more than 90 armed non-state actors to promote the protection of children’s rights and education, demonstrating the potential for widespread recognition of this important issue.

Unfortunately, advocating for the protection of schools has done little to prevent their occupation, destruction, and the resulting termination of hundreds of thousands of children’s education across the planet. After Al-Shabaab’s bus attack in Mandera, Kenya, last November, in which 28 teachers died, the Kenyan National Union of Teachers was prompted to advise instructors to stop attending classes, thus ending their students’ education.

Similar impediments have occurred with increasing frequency. The reason why these attacks have become so prominent is because they are massively successful for two reasons. One, opposition groups strategically attack civilian institutions to humiliate and undermine state authorities. Two, groups often use students as human shields to avoid counterattacks.

Policy makers need to understand that the protection of schools exists as a humanitarian priority and ought not to be disregarded without sufficient pretext. The fundamental concern was affirmed most eloquently by Malala Yousafzai’s father, in a question he posed to the Oslo Conference delegates: “Is it wise to win a war and lose a generation?”

The Oslo Conference’s “call to action”, however, shines an embarrassingly bright light here at home and across the Western world. Canada, the United States, Germany, France, Britain and many other important states in the international system are not yet signatories to the Safe School Declaration.

While Canada may have granted Malala an honorary citizenship in recognition of her tremendous work protecting students and educational institutions, it is time to do something more concrete. Ottawa should assume a responsibility in mobilizing other Western countries to back the safe school initiative and make resources available to ensure the international momentum attained in Oslo continues. The future of millions of children depends on it.