Thirty-seven countries on May 29, 2015, joined an international Safe Schools Declaration that commits them to protect education from attack. In situations of conflict, widespread attacks on schools and universities, their students and staff, as well as the use of school buildings by armed parties is denying education to many thousands of people – with devastating results for individuals and their communities, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) said.
The Declaration was adopted at a meeting hosted by the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry in Oslo. The Declaration is the result of a process initiated by the Coalition in 2012, and led by the governments of Norway and Argentina since 2014.
“Targeted attacks on education are robbing a generation of the chance to realize their potential, with a huge long-term social cost,” said Diya Nijhowne, the Coalition director. “The countries adopting the Safe Schools Declaration are making a commitment to take concrete action to protect students and their education in times of conflict.”
By joining the Declaration, countries agree to endorse and use new Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, which call for armed parties to avoid using educational buildings or making them targets of attack. The Declaration also requires countries to record casualties from attacks on education, assist victims, and support humanitarian programming that promotes the continuation of education during armed conflict.
When armed forces use schools and universities as bases and barracks, weapons caches, training grounds, or detention centers, it may not only force students out, but it risks making those buildings a military target, the Coalition said. Often the armed forces do not recognize the immediate or long-term costs of military use of schools. By using the Guidelines, countries help safeguard their children, their education systems, and ultimately their societies.
The Guidelines are intended to apply to non-state armed groups as well as government armed forces. In November 2014, the Guidelines were presented for discussion at a meeting of representatives from 35 non-state armed groups from 14 countries organized by Geneva Call, an organization that engages non-state armed groups to respect international humanitarian norms. In a declaration adopted at the end of the meeting, the non-state armed groups said they would take the Guidelines into consideration and expressed appreciation that non-state armed groups were being recognized as stake-holders in the effort to protect students and their education.
In a recent study, the Coalition found that schools and universities have been used for military purposes by government forces and non-state armed groups in 26 countries since 2005 -- the majority of countries with an armed conflict during this period. In an earlier study, Education under Attack 2014, the Coalition found a systematic pattern of attacks on education in 30 countries around the world between 2009 and 2013.
Among those at the Oslo ceremony was Ziauddin Yousafzai, the UN special adviser on global education, and the father and teacher of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and education rights campaigner shot by the Pakistan Taliban who went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He applauded the countries that attended the conference for putting the hope generated by education ahead of the despair resulting from violence.
The countries supporting the Safe Schools Declaration see it as the beginning of a process to strengthen the protection of education and have committed to meet regularly to review progress. The group said the Declaration is still open to countries that have not yet joined.
“Even though the Guidelines are flexible, some countries have been concerned about constraints on their armed forces,” Nijhowne said. “But the countries supporting the Safe Schools Declaration are making it clear that protecting education is a priority and that the work starts here to turn words into action.”