Campaign calls on states to end military use of universities

A global coalition of UN agencies and international NGOs is stepping up its international campaign to win support for the ending of military use of schools and universities in conflicts.

On 12 May the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, or GCPEA, called on states to ensure their armed forces do not use schools and universities in wars – because it puts the lives of students and staff at risk and causes long-term harm to education.

They urged them to sign a ‘Safe Schools Declaration’ – which also applies to universities – and is being finalised at an inter-governmental conference in Oslo, Norway, on 28-29 May.

Like the anti-landmine campaigners in the 1990s, they hope to change the mindset of military men and political leaders and change the behaviour of armed forces and armed groups in war.

“Armed forces’ obligations to respect, protect and fulfil students’ security and right to education need to be made explicit in their rules of conduct,” said Diya Nijhowne, GCPEA director. “We urge all states to join the Safe Schools Declaration because this is a global problem in need of a global response.”

According to GCPEA’s latest study on the issue, Lessons in War, schools and universities have been used as barracks, bases, weapons and ammunition stores, detention and interrogation centres, recruitment grounds, observation posts or firing positions in the vast majority of conflicts in the past ten years.

The forces using them include armed groups, regular armies, multinational forces and even international peacekeepers.

Sometimes soldiers take over an institution entirely, but often they use just a part of the school or university – a few rooms, an entire floor, the grounds – and in doing so they expose students to attack or other violence.

Students injured and killed

In the worst cases, students have been injured and killed and schools and universities damaged or destroyed as belligerent forces attack them because military forces had been using them.

Students and teachers are also endangered by the behaviour of undisciplined soldiers using their schools. The study notes that students have been sexually assaulted and harassed, and recruited into armed groups.

The educational consequences of military use of schools and other education institutions include high student dropout rates, reduced enrolment, lower rates of transition to higher levels of education, overcrowding and loss of teaching time. Female students are particularly negatively affected.

An earlier GCPEA study, Education under Attack 2014, published last year, reported that military use of higher education facilities had been a problem in countries such as Côte D’Ivoire, Somalia and Yemen. In the latter, the breakaway First Armoured Division forces occupied Sana’a University Old Campus in 2011 for ten months.

In Somalia, university campuses were used by the armed group al-Shabaab, as well as by African Union forces in the international peacekeeping force, AMISOM, and by government troops, particularly during the 2012 military campaigns that drove al-Shabaab out of their strongholds.

Education under Attack reported a total of 923 schools and universities being used for military purposes during 2009-12, across 14 countries – Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Côte D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Libya, Mali, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Thailand and Yemen.

The report documented allegations that in Syria government forces had used approximately 1,000 schools as detention and torture centres, as places to house security and intelligence personnel, or as positions from which to shell the surrounding area.

The Lessons in War study applauds the increased attention to the issue of military use of schools by the United Nations. In 2011 the UN Security Council requested regular reporting on the problem. In 2014 it twice demanded that schools in Syria be demilitarised; and in 2014 it also encouraged all UN member states to consider concrete measures to deter the use of schools.

Guidelines developed

According to the Global Coalition, states’ endorsement and implementation of the ‘Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict’, through the Safe Schools Declaration, would constitute such appropriate concrete measures.

The Guidelines were developed through more than two years of consultations and discussions with governments, armed forces, local civilian organisations and international organisations from around the world, and build upon good practice already applied by some states.

They urge parties to armed conflict – both state armed forces and non-state armed groups – not to use schools and universities for any purpose in support of the military effort.

While the Guidelines acknowledge that certain uses would not be contrary to the law of armed conflict, they state that all parties should endeavour to avoid impinging on students’ safety and education, using the Guidelines as a guide to responsible practice.

The Guidelines urge government armed forces and non-state armed groups to incorporate these protections into their military doctrine, military manuals, rules of engagement, operational orders, and other means of dissemination, to encourage appropriate practice throughout the chain of command.

An official of the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, said that although the Guidelines are not legally binding and do not propose to change existing international law on the issue, they do provide good guidance to those involved in planning and executing military operations and practice and they “may help lead to a shift in behaviour and practice” that could result in the “minimisation of the negative impact that armed conflict has on students’ safety and education”.

Supporting the Declaration

Argentina and Norway have led the negotiations over the drafting of the Declaration, supported by Côte D’Ivoire.

So far Australia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have expressed a reluctance to join the declaration if it contains a commitment for them to implement better protections for schools and universities within their own military doctrine, the Global Coalition says.

By contrast, Austria, Croatia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Liberia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, occupied Palestinian Territories, Portugal, Qatar, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland have been among the first countries to express their intention to join and support the Declaration.

The Global Coalition’s campaign is ambitious, and the aim in the long-term is to build a groundswell of support internationally, leading to other states signing the Declaration, with the additional hope that eventually armed groups will also be persuaded to pledge their support.

“The more we learn about the negative consequences of the military use of schools on students and their studies, the harder it is becoming for governments and armed groups to explain or justify their use of schools for military purposes,” said Nijhowne. “Students deserve a school or university where they can study and learn without fear.”

Brendan O’Malley was lead researcher on Education under Attack 2014, published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, or GCPEA, and is author of two earlier Education under Attack studies published by UNESCO in 2007 and 2010. He is also chair of the board and managing editor of University World News.