An army soldier plays with students at Ban Pakaluesong Elementary School, Pattani, 2010. A local grandmother with six school-aged children told Human Rights Watch that they had all been moved from the school “because my grandchildren were scared of the soldiers."

(New York) – Governments should endorse the new Safe Schools Declaration at the United Nations Security Council debate on children and armed conflict on June 18, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch released a short video on protecting schools during armed conflict, featuring Ziauddin Yousafzai, UN special adviser on global education and the father of the education activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai.

“Hundreds of thousands of children worldwide find their schools under attack or used by fighting forces to wage war,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Safe Schools Declaration provides a concrete way for countries to commit to protecting children’s education, even during armed conflict.”

Currently, 38 countries have joined the Safe Schools Declaration, which was made public in Oslo, Norway on May 29, 2015. Signatories agree to endorse and use the new Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, which call upon parties to armed conflict to avoid using educational buildings or making them targets of attack. The declaration is the result of a process initiated by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack in 2012, and led by the governments of Norway and Argentina since 2014. Countries join the Safe Schools Declaration by stating so publicly and in writing to the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Schools and universities have been used for military purposes by government forces and non-state armed groups in at least 26 countries since 2005 – the majority of the world’s countries where there is an armed conflict. Schools have been used as bases, barracks, detention centers, weapons depots, and sniper posts. This 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 and interrupt their education, or study alongside armed fighters while potentially in the line of fire.

An earlier study found a systematic pattern of attacks on education in 30 countries around the world between 2009 and 2013.

Beginning in 2011, the UN Security Council has requested increased monitoring of attacks on schools and teachers, and military use of schools. In 2014, it encouraged all member countries to “consider concrete measures to deter the use of schools by armed forces and armed non-State groups in contravention of applicable international law.”

The UN secretary-general’s annual report on children and armed conflict, released on June 12, provides further evidence of widespread attacks on school and teachers, and the military use of schools, highlighting the urgent need to protect education in conflict. The report to the Security Council lists parties to armed conflicts that have committed serious violations of international humanitarian law against children. This year, nine parties were included on the secretary-general’s “list of shame” for attacking schools and hospitals.

Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to call on the UN secretary-general to include those who engage in abductions of children on his annual list.

“Military use of schools is a widespread but solvable problem,” Coursen-Neff said. “Countries that act now to end this practice will be leaders in making schools safe for children.”