Protecting Education in Conflict Zones

DOHA, LONDON – In conflict zones, it is children who often bear the brunt of the violence. Last month, repeated air strikes on a school compound in Idlib, Syria, killed at least 22 children; and children in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo have, for months, had no way to escape near-constant bombardments. As the New York Times reported in September, “They cannot play, sleep or attend school. Increasingly, they cannot eat.”

Just a few weeks before that report, a bomb was detonated outside a school in Southern Thailand, just as parents were dropping off their children. The blast instantly killed a father and his four-year-old daughter, and injured ten others. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch described the bombing as an act of “incomprehensible brutality”: “Calling this a war crime does not fully convey the harm done to the victims, or the far-reaching impact such attacks have on children in the region.”

And just weeks before the Thailand bombing, on August 13, air strikes on a school in Yemen’s northwestern Saada region killed ten children and injured about 30 more.

Given these recent examples, there is clearly a need to prevent attacks – by state and armed non-state actors alike – on educational institutions and facilities. That is why Education Above All (EAA) has established its advocacy program, Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC).

The rationale underpinning PEIC is straightforward: education provides critical opportunities for children and young people, and this is especially true for those living in conflict zones. Schools and universities give students a vital link to normality, while encouraging them to maintain hope and pursue their aspirations. They not only train the next generation of doctors, journalists, lawyers, and community leaders; they also furnish children with mentors, food, water, and knowledge about basic health and sanitation. And yet, as the attacks on schools in countries such as Syria, Yemen, and Sudan show, what are supposed to be safe havens often are under direct threat.

If children can still attend school during conflicts, they will be the green shoots that emerge to re-rebuild their war-torn societies when the fighting is over. To protect students’ basic human right to education, universities and schools in conflict zones should be shielded in the same way that health-care facilities are. Indeed, like hospitals, schools concentrate one of the most vulnerable populations in any society.

Attacks on children and schools often draw international condemnation, but words alone are clearly not an effective deterrent. Thus, PEIC’s mission is to use the enforcement mechanisms available under international law to strengthen our collective political will to prevent attacks on educational facilities. EAA wants to ensure that education is recognized as being fundamental to human development – and thus is accorded the fullest protection.

We should be creating a world where everyone who wishes to learn, teach, or conduct academic research can do so in peace and with dignity. But this shared ambition requires shared action, because it will take collaboration, cooperation, and mutual trust to develop the new international arrangements needed to protect educational institutions in conflicts.

Toward that end, and in partnership with the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, PEIC has taken a leading role in promoting the Safe Schools Declaration, which includes a promise to protect “schools and universities from military use during armed conflict.” This clause is essential for safeguarding schoolchildren, teachers, and facilities during times of war. We hope that, in time, the Declaration in its entirety will become a universally recognized international standard.

In September, Albania became the 56th country to sign the Declaration, and the Albanian government has now publicly committed to protecting education during periods of armed conflict. In making this pledge, Albania has joined countries such as Iraq, where there is a pressing need to safeguard children’s futures, as well as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Kenya, Nigeria, New Zealand, Norway, Qatar, and South Sudan.

EAA is committed to preventing schools from becoming battlegrounds, and it is calling on all countries that have not yet signed the Declaration to do so. Signing the Declaration amounts to a political commitment to protect education, even during the most savage conflicts – which is to say that it is a commitment to protect the world’s children. It is in every country’s interest to guarantee that today’s students will have the opportunity to serve as tomorrow’s leaders. As the world watches schools being destroyed in Syria, Yemen, and other conflict zones the Safe Schools Declaration is more important than ever.