Australia must show its support for safe schools

By Tim Norton
Schoolchildren in Sierra Leone. By Gpforeducation/Flickr

Typically debates about education in Australia revolve around things like teacher-to-student ratios, funding allocations and how to compete better on the world stage. What we don’t expect is that when we pack our kids’ lunches and drop them at the school gates, militia boasting AK 47s will be waiting for them, or that they might never return home because armed conflict reached the schoolyard.

We don’t expect to hear that they’ve been abducted from the very place that’s supposed to be a safe haven. Nor do we expect the army to use schools for military purposes and turn classrooms into military targets to be bombed and shelled.

Yet more and more schools – and school children – are being targeted or used in armed conflict. Who can forget the horrifying attack on a school in Pakistan in December 2014 which left 153 students and teachers dead? Or when armed gunmen attacked Garissa University College in Kenya, killing nearly 150 students and teachers?

In South Sudan, the UN has identified 83 schools used for military purposes since 2011 with the cost of repairing the damage estimated at more than $US85,000 per school. Then there was the report in January this year claiming that Islamic State had converted more than 1,500 schools in Iraq’s western Anbar province into military barracks.

In the past decade, fighting forces in at least 26 countries have used schools and universities for military purposes including barracks, armories and detention centres, as evidenced in the recent Lessons in War 2015 report. Snipers have been positioned at classroom windows, concrete fortresses have been erected on school roofs and razor wire fixed around playgrounds.

The military use of schools also exposes children to increased risk of sexual violence or recruitment as child soldiers. This can lead students to drop out and parents to remove their children from school in order to protect them – particularly worrying when nearly 60 million children around the world do not go to school, and half of these live in countries with armed conflict.

Last month, Australia had the perfect opportunity to act on this issue, through adoption of an international agreement called the Safe Schools Declaration at a summit in Oslo. In doing so, we would be making a positive step for the millions of children whose right to education has been impacted by war and conflict. By signing on to the Declaration, states agree to endorse and use the new Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict which call for armed parties to avoid using educational buildings or making them targets of attack.

Already, 47 countries have signed on to the Declaration. Instead of joining their ranks, Australia sided with Canada, Japan, South Korea, UK, France and the USA by voicing its objections to the Declaration and electing not to sign on.

In a statement, ambassadors for these countries said:

We have concerns that the Guidelines do not mirror the exact language and content of international humanitarian law, and that the full implications of this divergence are yet to be fully explored. We consider that the full implementation of international humanitarian law provides the best protection for civilians in situations of armed conflict.

While it is important to recognise the fundamental importance of international humanitarian law in protecting children in armed conflict, this Declaration represents the best opportunity yet for nations of the world to stand together and show their concrete commitment to better protect children and their education in situations of armed conflict. The Guidelines within the Declaration outline six specific measures to prevent parties to armed conflict from impinging on students’ safety and education.

In particular, they say schools should not be used by fighting forces or attacked or destroyed to get back at opposing parties. Fighting forces must never be employed to provide security for schools, attacking a school must be absolute last resort, and all signatories to the Declaration should ensure the adoption and incorporation of the Guidelines through their military rules and chains of command. The Declaration also requires countries to record casualties from attacks on educational facilities, assist victims, and support humanitarian programming that promotes the continuation of education during armed conflict.

The Guidelines are intended to apply to non-state armed groups as well as nation states. In November 2014, the Guidelines were presented for discussion at a meeting of 35 non-state armed groups aimed at discussing international humanitarian norms. In a declaration adopted at the end of the meeting, the non-state armed groups said they would take the guidelines into consideration.

Nations including Australia need to put the commitments outlined in the Declaration and the Guidelines into practice, including when it comes to things like the training of troops in Iraq, investigating when schools are being used for military purposes and supporting the continuation of education in places of conflict.

Just as Australian children have a right to education,
so do children throughout the world including in times of conflict.

And we should not underestimate the impact this political commitment might have when combined with practical action. The use of schools by armed forces has already been banned in some countries. In the Philippines, although some incidents of military use of schools continue to occur, the practice has been explicitly banned under both national legislation and military policy. In India where security forces once used more than 129 schools back in 2010, disrupting studies for more than 20,000 students, India’s Supreme Court ordered the forces out. As of 2015, almost all, if not all, have been vacated. In 2012 the United Nations issued a new manual for all infantry battalions serving as peacekeepers that requires schools not be used by the military in their operations.

Just as Australian children have a right to education, so do children throughout the world including in times of conflict. When children are in school they are less vulnerable to activities like child labour, early marriage and recruitment to armed groups. Children’s wellbeing also improves because school restores a sense of stability in their lives and they learn better ways of coping with their situations.

There are a million more reasons why children need education, and Australia must play its part and ensure the most vulnerable children in the world can still go to school no matter what.