Tomorrow, February 10, Belgium will host an international conference at the Egmont Palace on protecting children during times of war. Queen Mathilde will be there. Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders will be there. Various European Union, NATO, and United Nations dignitaries be there. But will anyone mention that Belgium is at risk of falling behind in a crucial element of protecting children during times of armed conflict: protecting them while they’re at school?
Belgium is yet to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, an international agreement to take common-sense steps to protect students, teachers, and schools during wartime. Countries that join the Safe Schools Declaration agree to restore access to education faster when schools are attacked. They also agree to deter such attacks by investigating and prosecuting war crimes involving schools, and agreeing to minimize the use of schools for military purposes, such as for barracks or bases, so as not to convert schools into targets for attack.
Belgium’s support would be important to children around the world who face danger every day because their schools are targets.
To date, 57 countries have joined the Safe Schools Declaration, including the majority of EU states and half of NATO members. This number also includes many conflict-affected countries, including Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan. If these countries – those affected by attacks on schools – see value in this declaration, then Belgium should too.
Safe schools offer essential protection for children in wartime, and to do so they need to stay open and not become military targets. Schools can shield children from trafficking and recruitment by armed groups. They can provide life-saving information about how to avoid landmines or prevent the spread of HIV. Perhaps most important, access to a safe space to study and learn provides students with a sense of normality, routine, and calm amid the chaos of war.
Yet in war zones around the world, from Afghanistan to Yemen, students, teachers, and schools are regularly coming under attack. Armed groups target schools and teachers as symbols of the state. They oppose what is being taught, and to whom. To make things worse, in the majority of countries with armed conflict, armed forces are using schools for military purposes.
We cannot protect children during wartime without protecting children while they’re at school. There’s no better opportunity for Belgium to advance their goal of protecting children during armed conflict than by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration this Friday.