Students and teachers from around the world call for schools and universities to be protected from military use.

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

(Palma de Mallorca) – More countries are protecting students, teachers, and schools from the harmful consequences of military use of schools during wartime, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today, in advance of the Third International Conference on Safe Schools in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, on May 28 and 29, 2019.

The 137-page report, “Protecting Schools from Military Use: Law, Policy, and Military Doctrine,” contains examples of law and practice from 50 countries, from Afghanistan to Yemen, that provide some level of protection for schools or universities from military use. Many of the examples come from countries currently or recently involved in armed conflict.

“When war breaks out, schools frequently end up on the battlefield, with classrooms converted into military bases or bunkers, or used to store weapons,” said Bede Sheppard, deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “But more and more militaries are asserting that with the right policies and planning, they can find alternative ways to deploy their forces without using school buildings.”

The report includes protections for schools and universities contained in legislation, court cases, military manuals, military policies, and other policy statements.

Governments and armed forces with firsthand experience of problems caused by military use of schools have found practical solutions to deter the practice, Human Rights Watch said. All governments should take inspiration from these examples to ensure that their militaries avoid using schools for military purposes. Since 2013, the military use of schools or universities has been documented in at least 30 countries dealing with armed conflict or insecurity, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, of which Human Rights Watch is a member. That number represents the majority of countries experiencing armed conflict during that time. Armed forces take over schools and universities either partially or entirely to convert them into military bases and barracks. They use the schools as detention and interrogation facilities for training fighters, to store or hide weapons and ammunition, or to otherwise support the military effort.

This practice endangers students and teachers, can lead to the damage and destruction of important education infrastructure, and can interfere with students’ right to education, Human Rights Watch said.

Spain will co-host, along with Norway and Argentina, the Third International Conference on Safe Schools, which will bring together government representatives from around the world to discuss the global problem of attacks on students, teachers, and schools, and the related issue of military use of schools.

Many of the countries attending the conference have already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment for countries to take concrete steps to make students, teachers, and schools safer during times of armed conflict, including by agreeing to refrain from using schools and universities for military purposes. It was drafted under the leadership of Norway and Argentina in 2015. To date, 87 countries have endorsed the declaration, and more are expected to join at the upcoming conference.

The governments yet to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration should take the upcoming conference as an opportunity to express their commitment to protect children, teachers, and schools during war.

United Nations committees on children’s rights, women’s rights, and economic and social rights, as well as the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and the European Parliament, have all called on countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. The UN Security Council has encouraged all countries to “take concrete measures” to deter the use of schools by armed forces and armed groups.

Since 2009, Human Rights Watch has investigated the military use of schools in Afghanistan, Cameroon, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, India, Iraq, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Ukraine, and Yemen.

“Governments now know that they can take common sense steps to keep students safe during war,” Sheppard said. “Almost half the world’s countries have now endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, recognizing the longtime importance of education for their citizens, even amid armed conflict.”