We must ensure that schools are never targeted in armed conflict

The Guardian, July 26, 2014

After the damage done to schools in Gaza, new rules are needed that preserve the right to education during conflict

By Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister and Chancellor, and UN Special Envoy for Global Education

A total of 120 schools, more than 70 run by the United Nations refugee agency, have been bombed or suffered collateral damage during the recent emergency in Gaza. But it was last Thursday’s devastation, with the deaths of 15 women, children and UN staff and the injury of more than 200 in the bombing of the UN school in Beit Hanoun that brought the issue to a head. It has challenged us to end, once and for all, the use of schools and their pupils as pawns in the pursuit of war.

As the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has said, schools are for learning and must never become theatres of war. They should be safe havens for boys and girls, and their violation is a crime against international law. And whatever the provocation, their militarisation – by whatever means – should be outlawed.

Of course everyone, in theory, subscribes to an international consensus that schools have only civilian and not military uses. This is in line with the UN convention on the rights of the child, whose 25th anniversary is now being marked and which has formed the basis of a recent UN security council resolution passed during the Luxembourg presidency. That resolution emphasised the ban on the use of schools, colleges and universities in armed conflict.

There are good reasons behind it. Schools are not only essential to the delivery of opportunity and sustainable development; it is important that, even in the darkest of conflicts, children see their schools as sanctuaries, as places of normality and safety. But there is another reason: in times of war, people need material help – food, shelter, healthcare. But they, especially young people, also need hope. It is through education that we do most to communicate the idea that we are planning ahead for a time free of conflict.

Current procedures, however, are not enough to guarantee the safety of schools. Israel has been given the physical coordinates of Gaza schools, and Hamas warned not to store arms in schools once they have been evacuated. But we know that, despite all this, schools have been targeted.

And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is but one example among many. Thousands of child refugees from Syria can testify how their schools became targets for bombs and bullets. I have visited Nigeria and seen how schools there have been singled out by Boko Haram – whose name can be translated as “western education is a sin” – and, as a result, hundreds of pupils and teachers murdered in the name of shutting schools for good. And I have been in South Sudan, where millions of children are denied education, and seen how schools have become ready targets for violence.

That is why the pleas of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, which has consistently campaigned for new rules that preserve a child’s right to education during armed conflict, must now be taken seriously and enforced by the international community.

And it is the need for more definitive guidelines for the protection of schools that has led the Norwegian government to urge all countries to support what are called the Lucens Guidelines. These advise the military authorities of each country how to prevent schools being used as instruments of war.

So far 30 countries have indicated their support for implementing the guidelines. But now, in the wake of the Gaza deaths, it is urgent that all UN members follow the secretary general’s advice, and send a message that is loud and clear: that just as wars should never be fought through the targeting of hospitals, and they should never be waged through the violation of schools.