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Lessons of war - the misuse of schools by militaries

Published in: Public Service Europe

The contrast was striking. Outside the laughter of boys playing echoed around the school courtyard while inside one classroom a nervous 14-year-old, Ashraf, described the day bullets and shells rained down on his school. "When they started shooting, the principal led us all to the basement," he told me.

A teacher filled in the details. A group of 200 fighters from a local tribal militia had moved into the top floor of the school during the previous year's summer break. Armed with assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers - the men fortified the school with sandbags and concrete shielding. "You couldn't recognise that this was a school because of the military barracks here," the teacher explained. When classes began for the new school year, the armed men stayed put.

The militia had probably chosen the school for its base because it afforded a good overlook to enemy forces. And - as is to be expected when opposing forces come within eyeball range - there were frequent exchanges of gunfire. The school, and on occasion students and teachers, got caught in the crossfire. Another student told me, "The military barracks terrified us, and students didn't come to school because they were expecting that anything could happen."

I heard this story earlier this year, when documenting the practices of various armed groups using schools for military purposes during the recent uprising in Yemen. But I could have heard similar stories in at least 24 countries around the world during the past seven years, according to a new report released by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. The coalition brings together United Nations agencies, humanitarian bodies and human rights organisations to increase attention and action in response to attacks on students, teachers, and schools.

The report details the widespread - yet underreported - issue of militaries using schools as barracks, bases, detention centres, firing positions and training grounds. As I learned from this teenage boy in Yemen, this practice endangers the lives of children and teachers. But it also harms students' right to education, by either evicting students from their regular place of learning, or causing overcrowding and a threatening environment for children in their schools.

Europe is not immune to this problem. During the conflict in South Ossetia, in Georgia in 2008, a kindergarten teacher told Human Rights Watch that South Ossetian militias had hidden in her kindergarten and that government forces had attacked the building with rockets. Others told us that militia fighters mingled with civilians in the basement of another school. That school also drew government tank fire. And during the war in Bosnia, in the early 1990s, schools used for detention and interrogation became sites of mass execution, torture and rape.

Europe also forms an unusual laboratory of ideas on addressing the problem. Ireland has become a world leader on this issue, boasting legislation that bans their armed forces from ever conducting manoeuvres in or around schools. In the United Kingdom, the armed forces' manual on the law of armed conflict does not rule out the practice, but it does advise that "the better view" is that the law prohibits the use of institutions dedicated to education "for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in armed conflict, unless there is no feasible alternative to such use".

In the UN Security Council last year, Germany spearheaded a resolution to require the UN to report regularly on instances when militaries used schools in violation of international law during certain situations of armed conflict. But despite pushing for such much-needed monitoring around the world, Germany itself lacks any explicit military policy on the use of schools by its forces either at home or abroad. In this way they are like most European countries, which also lack explicit regulations to protect schools from use during times of war.

But as the example of Ireland demonstrates, Europe really could do better. Indeed, under new policies released by the UN in August, any country contributing troops to peacekeeping operations will be required to do better - the new standards demand that peacekeepers not use schools as part of military activities. If more European nations banned or restricted the practice within legislation or military policy, it would send a strong message to the 24 countries around the world where such use of schools has been documented. Access to schools can protect children from many of the ills that typically befall them in situations of war and strife.

Safe schools provide lifesaving information, mitigate the psychosocial impact of war and protect children from trafficking and recruitment by armed groups. Access to a safe place to learn can provide students with a sense of normalcy, routine, and calm amid the chaos of war. In the long term, a good education helps young people develop the skills they need to build lives for themselves and prosperity for their communities. That is a goal and future that the world's most advanced and well-equipped armed forces should value and support. May that be a lesson that Ashraf can teach us all.

Bede Sheppard is a senior researcher at the Human Rights Watch campaign group

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