6 December, 2023
by Sam Biden, Research Assistant
The Safe Schools Declaration (SSD) is an inter-governmental political agreement signed in 2015, currently between 118 states, that provides clear guidelines for how war and conflict is to be executed with due care to the impact on education. There are 6 guidelines mentioned: they are not legally binding unlike multilateral treaties, but demonstrate the political will of states to commit to the protection of education.
Firstly, operational schools and universities should remain untouched by the fighting forces of parties to armed conflict, ensuring that they are not utilized in any way to support military efforts: this includes being used as target protection for the inhabiting forces. The guideline asserts the use of force or incentives to coerce education administrators into evacuating schools for military purposes is strictly banned under international law. Second, when coercion or the use of force are not necessary to take control of an educational facility for use as a military objective, such as a case of abandonment, this does not allow its conversion for military purposes, despite the absence of any civilian targets. Third, physical protection of schools and universities against wanton destruction is extended beyond present-day objectives, expanding protections considering potential use by opposing forces later. Fourth, if opposing forces do occupy an educational facility, it is acknowledged that it may now be considered a military objective, potentially legitimizing an attack against it. However, all other feasible options must be considered before an attack takes place, including communicating to the holding forces of an impending attack unless they evacuate the facility. Both forces must also consider the special protections these facilities have, alongside the civilians who use the facility and any future implications for the community in the event the facility is attacked. Should the occupying forces discontinue the use of the facility, anything that is military-affiliated must be removed, with control being granted back to civilian authorities. Fifth, military protection of educational facilities should be made as a last resort, with a preference for trained civilian personnel unless necessary. This rule ensures that the presence of military forces around civilian objects cannot be used as a valid reason to deploy force, as risk to the civilian population is heightened. Finally, it is instructed to the signatory parties to incorporate the guidelines, as well as other key humanitarian rules, into national documents such as military manuals, rules of engagement and training regimes throughout the chain of command. This is intended to create effective educational and practical applications of the guidelines in real time.
Despite widespread endorsement of the SSD, wartime impacts upon the education sector continued to worsen, seeing greater attacks on educational facilities, rising numbers of children being out of education and ever more destructive purposes being deployed.
In response to this, the UN highlighted through Resolution 2601 that new commitments to maintaining international peace and security, with a focus on protecting education, were necessary. They emphasized the widespread impact of armed conflict, particularly on access to education, and the long-term consequences this has for the civilian population at large, causing mass displacement and restricted access to such a fundamental right. Recognizing the crucial need for states to create a secure environment for safe access to education, the UN highlighted the international humanitarian law obligations related to the protection of schools and educational facilities during armed conflicts, urging member states to accede to their primary responsibility in providing protection and relief to children affected by armed conflict. It was made clear that political will and practical application were not mutually respected by member states.
Increase in Attacks and Military Use of Schools
The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) released their 2022 ‘Education Under Attack’ report, highlighting some alarming findings, indicating a significant increase in attacks on education and the military use of schools in 2020 and 2021. The data reveals a one-third surge in such incidents compared to 2019, and this heightened rate persisted in 2021. The concerning aspect is the oscillating number of casualties, which halved in 2020 but doubled in 2021, returning to near pre-pandemic levels. GCPEA documented over 3,000 attacks on schools across 27 of the 28 profiled countries in 2020 and 2021. Additionally, over 630 incidents of attacks on school students, teachers and other personnel were reported, resulting in injuries and deaths.
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries experienced a reduction in attacks on education as public health lockdowns were enforced. Since many institutions around the world were being forced to close under local regulations, there were far less of those in education being put at risk by attending school or university. However, a disturbing trend emerged as schools reopened in late 2020 or early 2021, leading to a spike in attacks on schools, teachers and students, steadily rising and creating concerning post-pandemic levels of violence. Notably, armed forces and non-state armed groups capitalized on the vacancy of schools, repurposing them for military use during the pandemic in conflict-ridden regions such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria and Sudan.
The military use of schools and universities became a disturbing global phenomenon during the 2020-2021 reporting period. GCPEA identified approximately 570 reported cases of military use globally, more than double the incidents reported in 2018 and 2019. Myanmar had security forces reportedly using 176 schools and universities between February (the time of the coup) and September 2021, affecting at least 13 states and regions. Furthermore, Myanmar accounted for nearly 40 percent of these cases, showcasing a particularly distressing trend alongside other countries, including the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Iraq. These findings underscore the urgent need for international attention and concerted efforts to protect education in conflict zones and prevent further harm to students and educators.
The increase in attacks against education are split nearly equally between member state forces and non-state armed groups. Of 4,500 attacks from 2020-2021, half were attributed to non-state armed groups, with three quarters of schools being used for military purposes made by member state forces. The scale of non-state armed group development is staggering, with 520 individual groups being identified as of ‘humanitarian concern’ as of 2022, far higher than the 70 states with the highest level of educational attacks. With such a broad number of armed groups, the political will of member states remains only partially fulfilled: unless they can curb the actions of non-state armed groups alongside member state forces, the SSD cannot be effectively implemented
In the complex landscape of armed conflicts worldwide, the use of explosive weapons has demonstrated varying impacts on educational institutions and were employed in about one-fifth of reported attacks on education between 2020-2021, causing significant damage to educational infrastructure and directly resulting in disproportionate casualties among students and educators. The 2022 GCPEA report reveals disparities in the reported attacks on schools and universities, with Myanmar experiencing a higher number of incidents during the reporting period, primarily involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Strikingly, while the frequency of attacks in Myanmar was elevated, the resulting damage or destruction to educational facilities was comparatively less severe than in Northern Syria, which reported 37 attacks in the reporting period alone. The nature of these attacks, primarily executed through air or ground-launched explosive devices, led to more substantial damage or destruction of educational buildings. Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen were the most affected, with attacks on schools using explosive weapons claiming the lives of at least 185 students and educators in Afghanistan during the first half of 2021.
Fortunately, a new declaration signed in 2022 aims to reduce the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in conflicts. The Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas Conference (EWIPA) was hosted in Dublin by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for the Republic of Ireland. The conference brought 50 state delegates together to sign a new political declaration aimed at strengthening civilian protections against the deployment of explosive weapons in populated areas. The declaration would offer educational facilities greater protection when in operation, especially those contained in urban areas.
The alarming rise in attacks on education during the reporting period of 2020-2021, documented by the GCPEA, demonstrates a critical need for renewed global attention and concerted efforts to protect educational institutions in conflict zones. The military repurposing of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic in regions like Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria, and Sudan underscores the urgency of addressing this issue. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas, responsible for a significant portion of reported attacks, poses a direct threat to the safety of students and educators, further emphasizing the need for protective measures.
While international initiatives such as the SSD and EWIPA declaration provide frameworks for protection, the challenges persist, requiring continued commitment from the global community to ensure the safety and security of education in times of conflict. The reports and resolutions discussed underscore the importance of translating political will into effective, practical measures to safeguard the right to education for all, even in the most challenging circumstances.
Image: A bombed school in Yemen, 2013 (Source: Julien Harneis via CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)