The military use of schools

The Nation Pakistan, April 8, 2014

Between 1989 and 2003, Liberia suffered two bloody civil wars. During this time, nine out of every ten schools were seriously affected, either entirely destroyed or damaged and looted. Although Liberia’s wars ended over a decade ago, many of its schools are still not functioning properly. On a recent visit to Monrovia with Save the Children, I visited a school whose buildings were still standing, but there was not much else to support the needs of the school’s 1,300 students. No books, no lab equipment, only broken chairs. What the bandits stole more than ten years ago had still not been replaced.

In Abidjan, in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, during the post-election crisis in 2010 and 2011, rival forces destroyed, damaged, looted or took over almost 500 schools and university buildings. In both countries, Ministers of Education, Defence ministers and other senior officials made emphatic statements that such whole-sale damage to their country’s education infrastructure must never be allowed to happen again. Sadly, of course, we know it is happening again – not in Liberia, and as of 2013 not in Cote d’Ivoire, but elsewhere. In war-torn Syria, schools have been bombed and fired upon, and education is suspended in large swathes of the country. The Syrian children receiving the best education today are most likely to be those living in refugee camps in neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon.

Over the past 5 years, hundreds of children and adults have been killed as a direct result of attacks against education, while many more have been injured. Hundreds of thousands of students were also denied the right to an education for weeks, months, and often longer. A primary school student in Somalia recalled a terrifying incident he experienced in 2010: “The school was hit by a weapon that sounded like thunder when coming and then made a big explosion.” Three children died in that attack and six were injured. His school was one of several that armed militants used as bases from which to attack opposing forces – locking the children and teachers inside and using them as human shields to protect the fighters from an aggressive counter-attack. Clearly, that strategy often fails.

One of the main reasons schools are targeted is so that they can be used for military purposes. In 25 of the 30 countries profiled in the Global Coalition to Protect Education Under Attack’s 2014 report, rival forces took over schools in whole or part to use them as bases, HQs, firing positions, weapons dumps, detention and torture centres – and in one case, as a mass grave. In Syria, an estimated 1,000 schools have been used for military purposes. For a fighting force concerned about tactical advantage, this makes some sense. Schools are conveniently located; they have large rooms suitable for an array of purposes; and they often have ample grounds for manoeuvring and perimeter fencing that offers security. As I walked around the war-damaged school in Monrovia I saw not just a school but also ideal military headquarters.

Surprisingly, international laws intended to regulate warfare make no special provision for schools. If a fighting force uses a school building or grounds – and the law does not forbid that – an opposing force is permitted under law to attack the school. In some circumstances, an attack is lawful even if the school is occupied by students and teachers. But in order to ensure that schools and universities are better protected during wartime and protect children’s futures, the Coalition decided to take a pragmatic, rather than legal, approach. In 2012, with an initial draft in hand, I met with a wide range of legal and military experts from around the world in Lucens, Switzerland, where we produced the Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. The challenge now lies in convincing states as well as established non-state armed groups to adopt and abide by these.

Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, but also a number of other States, have already responded enthusiastically to the guidelines. In countries currently affected by armed conflict, reaching and persuading rebel groups to use the guidelines is also essential. Working through an organization called Geneva Call, whose function is to promote compliance with the law among non-state armed groups, I’ve trained members of such groups in use of the Lucens Guidelines and found them to be receptive.

Adoption of the Lucens Guidelines will not prevent every attack or disruption of education during armed conflict. But the guidelines will make a huge difference. If fighting forces don’t use schools, opposing forces will have much less incentive to target them. And when schools can still function as schools, war-torn societies will have a much better chance of recovery. Children, after all, are a country’s future, and without an education, that future will be bleak indeed.

The writer is a Professor of International Law at the University of Greenwich, and served for more than thirty years as a British Naval officer.