It was an impressive, yet surprising, accomplishment. On July 12, 2011, with Germany’s then-Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle sitting in the president’s chair, the UN Security Council voted unanimously in support of a groundbreaking resolution that required the UN Secretary-General to report annually on armed forces that used schools for military purposes during times of war in contravention of the international laws of war.
As a children’s rights advocate working in New York during Germany’s two-year stint on the Council, I was impressed by the boldness of the German-proposed resolution, but initially thought it had little chance of success, especially since two fellow Council members—India and Colombia—had previously been implicated in such practices. But thanks to the skillful diplomacy and determination of then-Ambassador Peter Wittig and his team, Germany made its mark as a leader on the protection of children and armed conflict.
Yet just three years later, Germany is now betraying its leadership at the Security Council by refusing to support efforts to develop international guidelines that would better protect schools and universities from military use during armed conflict.
In my investigations around the world for Human Rights Watch, I have seen warring groups regularly convert schools into bases by encircling playing fields with barbed wire, and filling classrooms with sleeping cots for soldiers. They establish fortifications atop of school buildings from which to survey the surrounding area, and they position snipers in classroom windows. They stack rifles in hallways, hide grenades under desks, and park armored vehicles in gymnasiums. It is a practice that endangers students and teachers by turning their schools into targets for enemy attack. Students and teachers have been injured and killed in such attacks. It also exposes students to sexual violence, forced labor, and forced recruitment by the very soldiers who are sharing their schools. Students must either stay at home and interrupt their education, or study alongside armed fighters while potentially in the line of fire.
An annual UN report on such a dangerous practice may not sound like a sufficiently forceful response to such a threat to students’ safety and education. But naming, and thereby shaming, offending armed groups is one of the strongest and most effective tools that the Security Council possesses.
The Security Council resolution appeared to have an almost immediate effect for the better on the ground. South Sudan’s army, for example, soon issued an order banning troops from using schools. In the order, they stated their desire not to end up sharing the spotlight with the world’s most notoriously abusive groups in the Secretary-General’s report.
The resolution also helped spur international efforts to better protect schools from military use. In 2012, representatives from the ministries of foreign affairs, education, defence, and armed forces from 12 countries from around the world recommended the creation of international guidelines that would give clear guidance to armed forces on how to protect schools better from military use during conflict. The result of this effort has become known as the Draft Lucens Guidelines—“Lucens” after the village in Switzerland where the experts began composing them, and “draft” because nations are now being invited to help improve, finalize, and launch the guidelines before publicly endorsing them and incorporating them into their own domestic military policies and doctrine.
Countries have been lining up to express support for this process. From across the Americas, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific, 23 governments have publicly expressed their support.
But support from one state has been conspicuously absent: Germany.
Indeed, at an event held in Geneva in April, where delegate after delegate took to the floor to proclaim support for the process, Germany was the only country to speak up pointedly without any expression of support. Germany’s delegate committed merely that “in due time” Germany would “define the position [it] considers adequate and constructive.”
Germany’s opposition is difficult to fathom. Meetings with officials in Berlin, Geneva, and New York suggest that the resistance emanates from lawyers within the foreign and defence ministries who cling to the outdated view that international human rights law can be disregarded during times of war. Concerns such as children’s right to education would appear to carry little weight. They also claim that the law already adequately protects schools, even though they cannot point to any German military doctrine or policy that explicitly protects schools from such military use.
New Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen has a long and credible record of standing up for the protection of children within Germany. She should use her position to now also ensure better protections for the world’s most vulnerable children, who struggle and strive to obtain a basic education, even in the midst of war.
Germany was the first nation to champion better protections for schools from military use during times of war—von der Leyen should take the lead and return Germany to its leadership position.
Bede Sheppard is the deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.