A fragile piece of papyrus dug up in Egypt in the 1970s shows that people have been struggling with the question of where soldiers should be quartered for thousands of years. The notice scrawled in ancient Greek—dating from around the Third Century B.C.E. —appears to have once hung outside a priest’s chamber and has been interpreted as a commander-in-chief’s order: “Out of bounds to troops.”
In a new report by Human Rights Watch, we examine ongoing efforts to keep troops out of a different sacred space: schools and universities.
The release of the report coincides with the Third International Conference on Safe Schools, which convenes May 28 in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. There, more than 90 governments will be represented as they discuss efforts to curtail the military use of schools. Since 2013, troops have taken over schools or universities in at least 30 countries with armed conflicts or insecurity, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.
Schools have been either partially or entirely occupied and converted into military bases and barracks, and used as detention and interrogation facilities, for training fighters, to store or hide weapons and ammunition, or to otherwise support military operations. Such use of schools for military purposes endangers students and teachers, can lead to the damage and destruction of important education infrastructure, and can interfere with students’ right to education.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, say nothing explicit about the use of schools for military purposes. However, both the laws of war and international human rights law contain strong protections for both children and education. To try to bridge the application of relevant existing protections in the laws of war, children’s rights law, and human rights law, an international group of experts, including from armed forces and defense ministries, attended two consultations in Switzerland in 2015. They drafted a set of guidelines aimed at government armed forces and non-state armed groups, outlining common sense steps to minimize the use of schools and universities by armed forces.
The governments of Norway and Argentina then led a consultative process to finalize the experts’ work into the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, released in December 2014. Norway and Argentina took the lead in drafting a political commitment, known as the Safe Schools Declaration, which provided countries an opportunity to explicitly endorse the guidelines, as well as commit to other measures to better protect students, teachers, schools and universities during armed conflict.
Since the Safe Schools Declaration was opened, in May 2015, 87 countries have joined on. Endorsing countries represent all regions of the world, including 22 NATO countries, 23 European Union nations, and 38 Council of Europe members. At the international conference hosted by Spain this week, even more countries are expected to add their support, while those that have already endorsed the declaration will share examples of the steps they’ve taken to carry out its commitments.
A number of countries will have plenty to boast about.
In January, the Philippines appears to have become the first country in the world to criminalize through legislation the occupation of schools or disruption of education activities during armed conflict.
New Zealand updated its military manual earlier this year, specifying that its defense forces “are not to use school buildings or facilities for military purposes unless it is absolutely necessary.”
Switzerland recently approved an amendment to its military manual stating that “educational institutions are to be treated with particular caution,” and that the military use of schools or universities “should be avoided.”
Denmark’s 2016 updated military manual has recently been released in English. It says it’s necessary “to exercise restraint with respect to the military use of children’s institutions” as “the military use of schools has severe consequences not only in that it immediately endangers the lives of children and youths who are present in and near such schools but also in regard to the longer-term consequences for the education of school children.”
The United Kingdom has been quick to supplement its military policies to highlight its endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration, building upon its own 2004 military manual that notes that “the better view is that the law” prohibits the use of educational institutions “for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in armed conflict, unless there is no feasible alternative to such use.”
But national militaries are not the only ones that have taken steps to protect schools from military use in recent years. The report also highlights recent examples from armed non-state actors in Iraq, Lebanon, Myanmar and Syria that have made public commitments to refrain from using schools.
At the rate that countries are joining the Safe Schools Declaration and that military forces are making efforts to restrain the practice, there’s reason to be hopeful that the military use of schools can be stopped without having to wait another millennium.
Image: A damaged classroom at a school in the village of Kansafrah in the the jihadist-held Syrian province of Idlib on May 7, 2019 following reported shelling and air strikes in the area. Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images