State urged to sign up to Safe Schools Declaration
The Irish Times, May 21, 2015
The State is being urged to sign up to a global declaration on “safe schools” aimed at giving places of learning special protection from military use under international law.
The declaration is to be agreed at an education summit next week, bringing together governments and campaigners to try tackle the problem of students being targeted in conflict situations.
The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, which includes organisations likeHuman Rights Watch, has secured the agreement of 50 countries in principle to the declaration.
The Republic has yet to sign up, although the Department of Foreign Affairs said its officials had met a representative of the coalition, and the Republic was following “discussions on development of the text closely”.
The coalition has published a study on the military use of schools and universities during armed conflict in advance of the conference in Oslo, Norway, on May 28th-29th.
It documents how, in the majority of conflicts around the world, schools and universities are converted into barracks, logistics bases, operational headquarters, weapons and ammunition caches, detention and interrogation centers, firing and observation positions, and recruitment grounds.
“When soldiers use schools and universities, they endanger the lives of students and teachers, and risk causing long-term damage to education,” said coalition director Diya Nijhowne.
“We urge all states to join the Safe Schools Declaration because this is a global problem in need of a global response.”
The study reveals that schools and universities have been used for military purposes by armed groups, regular armies, multinational forces, and even peacekeepers in at least 26 countries with armed conflicts since 2005.
As well as facing the risk of being caught in the crossfire, male and female students have been sexually assaulted and harassed, and illegally recruited into armed groups by soldiers using their schools or universities, the study noted.
“The educational consequences of military use of schools and universities can include high student dropout rates, reduced enrolment, lower rates of transition to higher levels of education, overcrowding, and loss of teaching time. Girls are particularly negatively affected,” it said.
Reflecting increased international attention to military use of schools, in 2011 the UN Security Council requested regular reporting on the problem.
In 2014 it twice demanded that schools in Syria be demilitarised; and in 2014 it also encouraged all UN member states to consider concrete measures to deter the use of schools for military purposes.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs said: “Ireland remains deeply committed to the promotion of children’s rights, in particular their right to education, both in times of stability and in times of conflict.”
It said that the State had engaged on the issue in various ways, “including, crucially, through the core work of Irish Aid in addressing poverty and under-development” and by supporting targeted interventions implemented by agencies such as Unicef.
“On the subject of Irish support for the Safe Schools Declaration, we have followed discussions on development of the text closely. A decision on attendance at the meeting in Oslo will be made once the text of the declaration has been finalised and following consultations with relevant departments.”
The planned declaration includes guidelines developed through more than two years of consultations with governments, armed forces, civil society groups, and international organisations.
The guidelines are designed to encourage armed forces and armed groups to exercise restraint with respect to the military use of education facilities and reduce the impact that any such use can have on students’ safety and education when it does occur.