(Paris) – French President François Hollande’s announcement on February 21, 2017, that France has endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration is a strong signal to the international community and strengthens the legal protection for children and their education, UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch said today. By endorsing the declaration, a commitment to protect schools in times of conflict, France recognizes the importance of educational institutions to a country’s future.

French President François Hollance annonces France's endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration during the opening of the "Protect Children From War" inter-ministerial Conference co-organized by France and UNICEF in Paris, February 21, 2017.

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

The decision followed several months of efforts by UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch to raise the French authorities’ awareness of the importance of this declaration to protect children caught up in conflicts.

“When troops attack or occupy schools, students and teachers are put in grave danger or are pushed out and deprived of their right to learn,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “By upholding its support to this declaration, France can use both its international leadership abilities and its instructions to its own peacekeeping troops to protect students and school staff in conflict zones around the world.”

France becomes the 58th country and the first permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to endorse this declaration, opening the way for other countries to do the same.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch and UNICEF France carried out communication campaigns to inform and mobilize the general public to support a government move to endorse the declaration. Two films (one by Human Rights Watch and one by UNICEF France) were created and broadcast on social media.

Around the world, schools are attacked or being occupied by military forces and armed groups in conflict zones. It endangers the lives of students, their teachers, and denies hundreds of thousands of children their right to education.

“Protecting schools can guarantee a better future for a country embroiled in conflict,” said Sébastien Lyon, director of UNICEF France. “Once the fighting is over, having an educated populace and functional education infrastructures can strengthen recovery and rebuilding and improve the chance of keeping the peace.”

The announcement of France’s endorsement of this declaration comes at a time when an international conference co-organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNICEF on protecting children from war is being held in Paris, on February 21. Its aim is to mobilize the attention and efforts of the international community to intensify collective action to prevent and put an end to serious attacks on children in armed conflicts.

Currently, one child in 10 lives in a country or zone affected by armed conflict. In recent years, schools have been deliberately attacked in several crises and continue to be occupied, destroyed, and used by armies in conflict zones, depriving many children of their education. Yet, even in conflict, the best interests of the child should be a priority, UNICEF France and Human Rights Watch said.

The Safe Schools Declaration is a non-binding agreement proposed for support by countries around the world that was opened for endorsement at an international conference in Oslo, Norway, in May 2015. Under the declaration, schools can be protected even if they have been deserted by students and staff, to avoid a lasting disruption of the country’s education service when it needs it most – during post-war reconstruction.

The 57 countries that had already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration include a little over half of the European Union member states, half of NATO member states, and 12 Francophone member states.

Several of the countries most affected by attacks on schools and military use of schools have also endorsed the declaration, including Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. A second conference on safety in schools will be organized by the Argentine government on March 28 and 29, 2017.