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Xarid was so determined to get an education, that he braved the daily dangers of the streets of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, for as long as he could. But that all changed the day the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab brought the war to his classroom.

A lecture theatre at the Federal College of Education, Kano, Kano state, destroyed when Boko Haram insurgents lobbed grenades and shot students taking classes on September 17, 2014. At least 27 students and two lecturers were killed in the attack.  © 2015 Bede Sheppard/Human Rights Watch

“Al-Shabab came into the compound of the school and told us to stay in class,” he told me when we met in a refugee camp across the border in Kenya. The fighters set up a rocket launcher in the playground and started launching rockets in the direction of government-held territory. For more than two hours, the students and teachers huddled in their classroom, terrified. Finally, the al-Shabab fighters released them but, as the students tried to flee, an incoming rocket exploded in the compound, killing eight.

Al-Shabab has frequently used schools in areas they control. Students I spoke with said that the group had raised its flag over their schools and stored hand grenades and guns inside while classes were going on. Somali youth told me that al-Shabab had abducted boys from their schoolyards to fight for them and taken girls from class for forced marriage.

The experiences of Mogadishu students are, unfortunately, not unique in today’s wars. Schools have been attacked or taken over and used for military purposes in at least 30 countries since 2009.

It does not have to be this way.

Argentina will host an international conference on March 28-29 dedicated to protecting students, teachers, schools, and universities during times of armed conflict. The focus of this conference will be the Safe Schools Declaration, an international commitment drafted under the leadership of Argentina and Norway in 2015.

Countries that sign up to the Safe Schools Declaration not only agree to restore access to education faster when schools are attacked, but also agree to make it less likely that students, teachers, and schools will be attacked in the first place. They seek to deter such attacks by making a commitment to investigate and prosecute war crimes involving schools. And they agree to minimize the use of schools for military purposes, such as for barracks or bases, so as to not convert schools into targets for attack.

Perhaps most important, the declaration builds an international community committed to respecting the civilian nature of schools, and developing and sharing examples of the best practices for protecting schools from attack and military use.

To date, 59 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, including nine Latin American countries. That’s a good start, but there’s more work to be done.

Latin America has traditionally been a leader in international efforts to protect children. It was the first region where all countries signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child—the major international treaty outlining all children’s universal human rights. Latin America was also the first region to universally sign the international treaty banning the use of child soldiers.

So, with less than one month to go until this Safe Schools conference, Human Rights Watch has issued a challenge to Argentina’s ministry of foreign affairs: let’s make Latin America the first region to universally endorse the Safe Schools Declaration.

We also make this challenge to the governments of Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela—the governments that have yet to join. But to bring all these countries on board will require diplomatic outreach, encouragement, and advice from Argentina. We hope that many of the other countries that have already endorsed the Declaration—Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, and Uruguay—will support Argentina and encourage the other countries to join.

All those who work for better protections for children, including the United Nations agencies, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations, will no doubt join Human Rights Watch in encouraging the countries they work in to endorse the declaration.  It won’t happen overnight, but the goal of a safe world for children to go to school, no matter where they live, makes it well worth the effort.

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