Netherlands Moves World Toward Safer Wartime Schools

Joop/Human Rights Watch, May 24, 2016

By Bede Sheppard 

“And this is the computer room!” exclaimed the jovial sports teacher, throwing his arms out wide as we entered a classroom at School Number Four in the town of Krasnohorivka in eastern Ukraine.

I looked around the classroom, confused.

Not only were there no computers, there were not even desks or chairs. The room was bare.

A group of teachers gathered to explain.

During the previous year’s summer holidays, Russian-backed rebel forces had broken in and used the school as their military base for about a week. Not long afterward, the Ukrainian army moved in and stayed for almost a year.

We don’t know much of what the soldiers did in the school because they kept the teachers and students out. But during our visit in November, there were clues. Tracks in the outdoor basketball court indicate a tank may have been parked there — a nearby concrete pillar knocked askew suggests it had a bad driver. The staff room door had a soldier’s nom de guerre–“Crow” –painted in red. The teachers saw signs that the soldiers had lit fires inside, and piles of what appeared to be human feces.

When the soldiers left and the teachers returned, they found computers, furniture, and sports and music equipment all missing. The only desks I saw while touring the school were in the mathematics rooms, bolted to the floor.

While the soldiers were in their school, students shifted to a lower-quality distance learning program.

“Now we have this vicious circle,” a teacher said. “Parents say they’ll return to town if the school opens, and the local administration says the school will reopen when the families return.”

Down the hill, closer to the front line between government and rebel-controlled territory, I visited another school in worse condition, damaged from repeated heavy artillery fire. The school’s administrators couldn’t understand why the rebels would target the school—the closest military checkpoint was 700 meters away—but one theory was that the rebels thought the army was going to use this school as a base too. Classes there were cancelled as well.

That schools in Europe are under armed attack is shocking. But in fact, as in Ukraine, schools are both used for military purposes and targeted in most of the countries with armed conflicts around the world.

But there is hope for change, and the Netherlands has been a leader in protecting education in war.

A year ago this week, a group of countries gathered in Oslo to declare that students, teachers, schools, and universities must be better protected during wartime. In an aptly named Safe School Declaration, countries united around a set of concrete actions that governments can undertake, including more investigations and prosecutions of war crimes involving schools; better monitoring and reporting of such attacks; faster mitigation when schools are attacked; and ensuring that military forces refrain from using schools and universities for military purposes.

The Netherlands was one of the first countries to provide technical advice in the two-year process that led to this declaration. In a demonstration of support for the issue, the Dutch Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Education all generously provided expertise and input. The Netherlands then joined the declaration on the day it was opened for endorsement.

A year later, 53 countries have endorsed the declaration, including a number of countries currently or recently affected by armed conflict. Half of the European Union has joined, although the Netherlands’ neighbors, Belgium and Germany, are disappointing laggards.

It will benefit children around the world if the Netherlands continues its leadership by advocating universal support for the declaration within the European Union, and by implementing explicit protections for schools from military use by the Dutch armed forces.

In the years to come, the Netherlands’ support for this issue will be invaluable for helping to make sure that the simple daily routine of going to school is safe for all children, no matter where in the world they live.