The phrase "Safe Schools" has appeared in Australian headlines lately in the context of an educational initiative to address LGBTI bullying. However, there's another Safe Schools campaign that you may not have heard of – one where Australia is noticeably absent.
Last May, countries from around the world came together to join the Safe Schools Declaration, pledging to protect education during war. By signing this declaration, countries endorsed the "Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict".
These guidelines, drafted in a consultative process over a three-year period, provide guidance to governments and non-state armed groups on avoiding using schools in the course of military operations.
The campaign aims to protect schools and universities from being attacked or used for military purposes in times of armed conflict. At its heart are children like 16-year-old Alia in Yemen. Soldiers occupied the third floor of her school – she said just seeing them terrified her.
Human Rights Watch found bullet holes in the classroom doors and other major damage that a school official said came from an exchange of fire between fighters at the school and opposing fighters on the outside – with teachers still inside.
This experience isn't an exception – in armed conflict and insecurity, it's the norm. At least 30 countries have experienced a pattern of attacks on schools, teachers, and students since 2010.
In at least 26 countries in the last decade, military forces have used schools as training grounds, sniper posts, barracks, weapons depots, detention centres, or for other military purposes.
Most parents would agree that schools should be off-limits to warring parties, whether in peaceful countries like Australia or in conflict-torn countries like Afghanistan. Who would feel safe sending their daughters and sons to study in a school that was deliberately targeted or occupied by soldiers?
Deploying soldiers in and near schools places students and teachers at risk of attack by opposing forces. Parents are especially quick to withdraw girls from school when fighters are nearby, fearing sexual harassment and violence. School buildings often remain damaged or destroyed long after the fighting is over.
Refugee families arriving by boat in Europe have even told Human Rights Watch that attacks on schools and the lack of safe education motivated their desperate decision to make the dangerous journey.
To date, 52 countries have joined the campaign. These include war-scarred countries like Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Nigeria that have experienced first-hand the terrible effects of attacks and military use.
It also includes countries at peace like New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Malaysia, whose leaders recognise the importance of global support to keep schools safe.
Australia was consulted in the drafting of the declaration and the guidelines. But when it came time to sign, Australia wasn't just tardy, it was absent.
The government's primary objection, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs, appears to be that the Safe Schools Declaration doesn't "mirror the exact language and content of international law" (specifically, the laws of war). This is true. Otherwise, what's the point?
The laws of war do not necessarily prohibit military use of schools. And when schools are used, they can become legitimate military targets. Because the practice is so widespread, many countries have agreed that additional, voluntary steps are needed.
The guidelines endorsed by the declaration complement existing legal obligations and provide the kind of clear, practical guidance that troops in the field clearly need.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the primary international organisation mandated by states to help protect civilians in armed conflict, distributes the guidelines to its own staff.
The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations has included a prohibition on the military use of schools in its own infantry manual. Earlier this month, UNICEF Australia called for Australia to join the Safe Schools Declaration.
If Nigeria in fighting Boko Haram and Afghanistan in fighting the Taliban have agreed their militaries shouldn't use schools, then Australia, with its far better equipped military, shouldn't be dragging its feet in signing this declaration.
When Australia was on the UN Security Council in 2014, it supported a resolution to "immediately put to an end" practices such as attacks against schools and other violations against children during armed conflict.
Australia now has a concrete opportunity to join more than 50 other nations in following up on the substance of that resolution.
As a parent, I am sickened to know that children in conflict zones associate schools with danger and fear instead of learning. By joining the Safe Schools Declaration, Australia can change that and help make schools safer for children everywhere.