The Hague – The Dutch government should be the first European Union nation to take concrete measures to implement the Safe Schools Declaration, Human Rights Watch said today at the opening of its #WatchOurSchools campaign. The declaration is designed to help end widespread military attacks on schools during armed conflict.

School in Nikishine, eastern Ukraine, damaged during fighting between Ukrainian government and rebel forces from Aug. 2014 to Feb. 2015.

© 2015 Yulia Gorbunova

The government should also encourage European and NATO partners to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, which the Netherlands was among the first countries to join in May 2015.

“From Afghanistan to Ukraine, schools are under attack or used by fighting forces to wage war,” said Anna Timmerman, Netherlands director at Human Rights Watch. “The Netherlands has the opportunity to lead the way in responding to this global catastrophe, inspiring other countries to ensure that all students, teachers, and schools receive the protections they deserve.”
 

Nearly one year after the Netherlands signed the declaration, the Dutch Defence Ministry should showcase how the guidelines have been carried out and incorporated into the country’s military doctrine and practice, Human Rights Watch said.

The Netherlands has the opportunity to lead the way in responding to this global catastrophe, inspiring other countries to ensure that all students, teachers, and schools receive the protections they deserve.

Anna Timmerman

Netherlands director

Attacks on schools and their occupation by military forces can have a devastating effect on children and their communities. Of the 121 million primary and secondary school-age children not currently attending school worldwide, almost 50 million live in countries wracked by armed conflict. Since 2005, at least 30 countries have experienced a pattern of attacks on students, teachers, schools, or universities. Schools and universities in at least 26 countries have also been used for military purposes, such as for military barracks and bases, and weapons and ammunition storage.

The Safe Schools Declaration is a political commitment that was opened for endorsement by countries at an international conference in Oslo, Norway, on May 28, 2015. By joining the Safe Schools Declaration, countries make a commitment to take various measures to better protect children’s right to education during armed conflict.

This includes facilitating the collection of reliable data about attacks on students, teachers, and schools; providing international cooperation and assistance to programs working to prevent or respond to attacks on education; investigating allegations of violations of national and international law and appropriately prosecuting those responsible; and incorporating explicit protections for schools and universities from military use into domestic policy and operational frameworks.

The United Nations Security Council has expressed deep concern that the military use of schools in contravention of applicable international law may make schools targets of attack and endanger children. In 2015, the Security Council encouraged all countries “to take concrete measures to deter such use of schools by armed forces and armed groups.”

In March 2015, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders said that “the Netherlands is prepared to, in consultation with other countries including NATO allies, dedicate itself to the practical implementation” of protections for schools and universities from military use. However, the Dutch Defense Ministry has yet to make public any steps taken to carry out such protections or incorporate them into its doctrine, training, or practices. Dutch armed forces are currently deployed among other international forces in Afghanistan, Mali, and Somalia.

The #WatchOurSchools campaign will run until the one-year anniversary of the Netherlands joining the declaration in May 2016.

Through the accounts of three people who experienced military attacks on their schools, the campaign will put a human face to the problem of education under attack. Using social media and a campaign website, Human Rights Watch will engage with the Dutch public and show how safe schools during armed conflict are crucial for achieving the universal right to education.

The campaign is made possible by a grant of the National Postcode Lottery, which supports Human Rights Watch to carry out investigations into attacks on students, teachers, and schools and the military use of schools in a number of conflicts around the world.

Human Rights Watch has documented the military use of schools or attacks on students, teachers, and schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Palestine, the Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Ukraine, and Yemen.

Around the world, students, teachers, and schools have been attacked for political, military, ideological, sectarian, ethnic, or religious reasons.

Both government armed forces and non-state armed groups have also used schools as bases, barracks, training grounds, weapon storage, and even detention or torture centers. The use of schools for military purposes can turn a school into a legitimate military target, increasing the risk of harm to students by exposing them to attack. It can also expose students and teachers to forced labor, sexual harassment, abduction, and military recruitment, and can make it difficult or impossible for children to continue their education. When soldiers vacate schools, unexploded ammunition may be left behind and furniture is often looted or burned, impeding a safe return to school.

“Children’s right to education means little in practice if schools are occupied or targeted by soldiers,” Timmerman said. “The Netherlands has a proud history of championing international standards protecting civilians, and once again its leadership is needed to help ensure that education ceases to be a casualty of war.”