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Battling to save schools in times of war

Boy plays at a school in Yemen's capital, Sana'a

Over the past five years, thousands of schools have been attacked, damaged or totally destroyed by armed conflict in the Middle East. Across Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and Libya, almost 9,000 schools have been rendered unsuitable for learning. With nearly 14 million children (40 per cent) from five war torn countries out of school, humanitarian workers fear that an entire generation has already been lost because of attacks on schools and the battle now is to save the next generation.

An international coalition of institutions, advocacy groups and lawyers has been trying to push through an initiative to ensure that the educations of future generations are protected in areas of conflict.

Last week in Doha, Qatar, the Education Above All (EAA) foundation hosted a working group at the International Conference on “Human Rights Approach to Conflict Situations in the Arab region”. In a session co-hosted by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and EAA, various organisations, experts and academics were brought together to discuss the work and research that has been carried out since 2011, for the safe school initiative supported by dozens of countries around the world, including major UN bodies such as UNICEF as well as reputable human rights organisations.

Speaking to MEMO, one of the authors of the research, Courtney Erwin, outlined the urgent reforms governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region could implement to protect education and educational institutions that have been devastated by conflict. She believes that an added commitment to protecting schools, and incorporating the guidelines set by the Safe School Declaration, can make a difference in protecting education for future generations.

Courtney Erwin

Courtney Erwin

Erwin, who is an affiliated fellow at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, hopes that her work and research will clear the way for more country’s to endorse the Safe School Declaration, an initiative that was developed through state consultations led by Norway and Argentina.

Since 2011, Erwin and other legal experts drafted the key research document behind the Safe School Declaration: Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict. She has conducted around 20 state visits as part of the advocacy work to endorse the guidelines and declaration.

Explicit standards

Erwin told MEMO that under international humanitarian law, schools, unlike hospitals, do not have the same level of protection. Despite broad international law requiring parties to armed conflicts to spare civilians the hazards of war – as much as possible – the lack of explicit standards or norms protecting schools and universities from use in support of the military effort means that fighting forces often make use of such institutions for various purposes.

Armed forces have used schools for military purposes, with devastating consequences for children and their right to education. Forces have converted schools into barracks, detention facilities, military training camps, weapons depots, and bases for military operations. Often, forces take over only part of a school, putting students attempting to continue their studies at grave risk.

The proposed guidelines, which Erwin has been instrumental in drawing up over the past six years, aim to reduce the use of schools and universities in support of military efforts, and to minimise the negative impact that armed conflict has on students’ safety and education.

The final declaration draws on international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as good practice, to provide concrete guidance to states and non-state armed groups on how to reduce the use of schools and universities by armed parties and to minimise the negative impact that armed conflict has on students’ safety and education.

Consensus is always a major obstacle in international relations. However, with 59 countries already endorsing the declaration, Erwin and her colleagues are optimistic that more countries will sign on once the document has gone through further review and consultation beginning this month in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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