“This is the math class, and now this is not a class, this is a bunker of the army,” exclaims a young South Asian girl surveying a school classroom. In her voice is a touch of despair, tinged with a dose of disgust.
Her tone turns to disappointment: “I was very proud of my army, that the army protects us, but when I see my school in this way, so I am very shameful of my army.”
Last year, this girl travelled to Oslo to collect her Nobel Peace Prize.
The moment in the classroom is captured in a documentary about Malala Yousafzai’s life filmed in 2009, before the Taliban’s attempt on her life. The scene comes from the moment Yousafzai learns that when her family was in exile from their hometown during fighting, the Pakistani army had taken over one of her father’s schools and used it for military purposes.
A study released this week by a coalition of United Nations agencies and human rights and humanitarian groups reveals that this school in Pakistan was, sadly, hardly unique. It reveals that warring groups frequently convert schools into bases by encircling playing fields with barbed wire and filling classrooms with sleeping cots for soldiers. They establish fortifications atop school buildings 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.
The practice 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 soldiers sharing their schools. Students must either stay at home, their education interrupted, or study alongside armed fighters while potentially in the line of fire.
In the past decade, armed forces, armed groups, and at times international peacekeeping forces have used schools in at least 26 countries with armed conflict, including in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and even here in Europe. This is a global phenomenon that needs a global solution.
Despite broad international law requiring parties to armed conflicts to spare civilians the hazards of war as much as possible, the lack of explicit standards or norms protecting schools from being used to support the military effort means that fighting forces often use schools and universities for various purposes.
This month, that’s all going to start to change.
At a conference in Oslo on May 29, countries from the around the world will support better protections for schools from this kind of military use during wartime. They will agree to encourage their own armed forces to incorporate six straightforward Guidelines on Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict into their military policies and training. The Guidelines were developed through consultations with experts from each region of the world, ranging from representatives of armed forces and defense ministries to children’s rights organizations and UN agencies.
The Guidelines bring together existing obligations under the laws of war and international human rights law, and combine them with examples of good practice already used by some armed forces. As a result, they are neither naïve nor idealistic, but practical and realistic. They acknowledge that parties to armed conflict are invariably faced with difficult situations requiring pragmatic solutions.
But will Greece be there in Oslo?
We certainly hope so. European nations have largely been keen to indicate their support for these new Guidelines. But a small group led by Germany has so far been unwilling to accept any new commitments for what their own armed forces would do to refrain from using schools, even though Germany has a strong record of advocating at the UN for other countries to stop using schools for military purposes.
That’s why Greece’s voice will be influential. Not only as an EU member state but also as a member of NATO, and with a track-record of supporting both children’s rights internationally, and the sanctity of universities domestically.
Malala Yousafzai’s rebuke of the army’s misuse of her father’s school sends a signal to armies everywhere that even children can recognize that something is wrong with this common and insidious practice.
Ensuring safe access to education, even during wartime, is crucial for children’s safety, sense of normalcy, and development, and for ensuring that countries have the necessary skills to build peace following war. By attending the upcoming conference and publicly the protections outlined in the Guidelines, Greece can help better guarantee students’ rights to education, no matter where in the world they live.
Eva Cosse is the Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch, and Bede Sheppard is the organization’s deputy children’s rights director.