Editor’s Note: Displayed throughout this piece, photos by UNICEF-commissioned photographer Marko Kokic tell the personal stories of children whose schools have been attacked in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan and Nigeria, as part of UNICEF’s efforts to safeguard education in armed conflict.


This week, representatives of dozens of governments and UN and civil society organizations are gathered in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, for the Third International Conference on Safe Schools. It is an occasion to discuss implementation of the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration (the Declaration), a political instrument by which governments have committed to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities from the effects of armed conflict.

The rate of attacks on and military use of schools in recent and ongoing conflicts is significant. As the UN Secretary-General has described in his latest report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, “attacks on, and the military use of, schools … increased in 2018 in such places as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen.” Between 2013 and 2017, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has reported more than 1,000 direct attacks on or collateral harm to schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel/Palestine, Nigeria, and Yemen. Between 500 and 999 attacks on schools were documented in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine.

Attacks on schools and their military use form part of the broader notion of “attacks on education,” which takes many forms: “Students have been blocked from accessing their schools. Students and educators at all levels of education have been deliberately or indiscriminately killed, maimed, or traumatized. Schools and universities have been destroyed or damaged.” In armed conflict, children who are out of school have a higher risk of abuse, exploitation, and recruitment by armed forces and groups. The protracted nature of conflicts only compounds these effects. As the 2015 Safe Schools Declaration states:

In many countries, armed conflict continues to destroy not just school infrastructure, but the hopes and ambitions of a whole generation of children. … By contrast, education can help to protect children and youth from death, injury and exploitation; it can alleviate the psychological impact of armed conflict by offering routine and stability and can provide links to other vital services.

Bintu is 13-years old and lives in Banki, northeast Nigeria. Her village was attacked four years ago, and her school was destroyed. “On the day they [the insurgents] came, I was in school in the morning and then I went home and at that point they came, and we ran, everyone ran,” she says. “They burnt the school down. I was so upset, I felt like my dreams would never be achieved. We spent two years at my Uncle’s place in Cameroon. Life was very difficult there, I didn’t go to school.” © UNICEF/UN0311778/Kokic


Now endorsed by 89 countries, the Safe Schools Declaration calls for a number of measures to work towards safe schools. They include collecting data on attacks on schools, investigating and prosecuting alleged violations of national and international law, and committing to implement the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict (the Guidelines). These Guidelines urge parties to conflict not to make use of schools for military purposes in order to preserve their civilian character and not render them vulnerable to attack.

Zima and Rozina, 9 and 7 years old are two sisters who lost their teenage brother when in 2018 their girls’ school in Nangarhar province in Eastern Afghanistan was attacked. When the first improvised explosive device went off near the school, their brother Hijratullah came to help. He was killed by a second delayed explosion close to the school. “I would have told my brother how I loved him if I could see him again,” says Zima. “I miss him, I miss those days when we played together happily.” The school had been threatened by a militant group simply because it offered girls an education. © UNICEF/ UN0309022/Kokic


International Humanitarian Law

A number of fundamental rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) underpin the Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines. IHL requires all parties to armed conflict, State and non-state alike, to respect all civilian objects, including schools, and not direct attacks against them. In addition, they must take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event minimize, harm to them. This entails doing everything feasible to verify that a target is a military objective and not a civilian object, taking all feasible precautions in choosing means and methods of warfare to avoid, and in any event minimize, incidental civilian harm, or, when a choice is possible between several military objectives for obtaining a similar military advantage, choosing the objective on which an attack may be expected to cause the least danger to civilian lives and objects.

In addition, it is a fundamental rule of IHL that parties to conflict must not launch an attack that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. And parties must do everything feasible to cancel or suspend an attack if it becomes apparent that an attack would be disproportionate in this manner.

Defending parties must also take all feasible precautions to protect civilian objects under their control, including schools, against the effects of attacks, for instance by guarding civilian property and applying visible markings.

If a school were to be used for military purposes – for instance as a base, barracks, weapons storage, training, or firing position – then this could render it a military objective and thus susceptible to lawful attack. This is why, to safeguard schools against such attack and preserve students’ safety and education, the Guidelines urge parties to armed conflict not to use schools for any purpose in support of their military effort. Should a school, by its military use, meet the definition of a military objective, the Guidelines also urge parties to consider all feasible alternative measures before attacking, including, unless circumstances do not permit, warning the enemy in advance that an attack will be forthcoming unless it ceases its use of the school.

12-year-old Mohammed has been living in Banki in North-eastern Nigeria for the past two years after his village was attacked by an armed group. He and his family ended up in Cameroon where he attended school sporadically as he struggled with the French language. His local school was burnt down. “They destroyed everything we worked on in our books and they burnt them. One of my school teachers was killed,” he says. © UNICEF/UN0311777/Kokic


UN Security Council initiatives

Complementing these essential rules of IHL are a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions and initiatives. Over the last 20 years, the UN Security Council has adopted several resolutions dedicated to children in armed conflict, starting with Resolution 1261 (1999). This resolution identified violations committed against children in times of armed conflict, including attacks or threats of attacks against schools or hospitals. In 2005, the Security Council asked the Secretary-General to implement a “Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism on Grave Violations against Children in Situations of Armed Conflict” (MRM) and decided to establish a related Working Group composed of all 15 Security Council members. The MRM collects and reports information collected in the field on six “grave violations,” including on attacks or threats of attacks against schools or hospitals. The Working Group reviews the information reported by the MRM and recommends measures to enhance the protection of children in armed conflict.

In 2011, the Security Council included recurrent attacks on schools or hospitals as part of a “listing” mechanism by which the UN Secretary-General, in his annual public report on children in armed conflict, lists State and non-State parties that commit grave violations. In 2014, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2143, which, among other things, called for respect for the civilian character of schools in accordance with IHL, investigation and prosecution of attacks on schools that violate IHL, and enhanced monitoring and reporting on the military use of schools.

10-year-old Assiya is a student at a girls’ school in Nangarhar, a province in Eastern Afghanistan. Her school with more than 960 students was destroyed during a bomb blast in 2015. Seen here, she stands in her outdoor classroom. Behind her is a pile of metal debris that were once the desks and chairs at her school. “…I am still scared that someday they will come back and attack our school and the police station,” she says. © UNICEF/UN0309012/Kokic


Practical Steps to Protect Schools and Continue Education

Offering some hope, governments and armed groups have been taking practical steps to strengthen the protection of schools in armed conflict. For instance, in 2016 Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education issued two directives requesting that armed forces stop using schools for military purposes. In 2014 in South Sudan, the chief of staff of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army issued a military order demanding that all Army members refrain from occupying or using schools. By signing a Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Children from the Effects of Armed Conflict, a significant number of non-State armed groups have committed to “avoid using for military purposes schools or premises primarily used by children.” Both the 2018 report of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack and a report released this week by Human Rights Watch describe a wide range of positive developments in safeguarding education in armed conflict.

In addition to their ongoing advocacy to protect schools in armed conflict, humanitarian organizations have also contributed to preserving or re-establishing education in war. In northeast Nigeria where over 2,000 teachers have been killed and nearly 20,000 have been displaced since 2009, UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations have established hundreds of temporary learning spaces, rehabilitated schools and classrooms, and trained teachers to build a stronger education system. Across West and Central Africa, an innovative radio education program has provided an alternative learning platform for children. Between June 2017 and June 2018, the radio education program reached 126,000 children and youth in the Far North of Cameroon and in the Diffa region of Niger who were affected by the spill-over of conflict in northeast Nigeria. When going to school is too dangerous, this approach brings education into children’s homes.

In Afghanistan, UNICEF and other organizations are working with the government to provide community-based education, for instance by running basic numeracy and literacy classes in community buildings and private homes. This helps to reduce children’s exposure to insecurity on their way to school, especially for girls who are more likely to be kept at home for their own protection.

Hawa is 12-years old and lives in Gwoza, Northeast Nigeria. When the town was captured by militants four years ago, she fled the town and found a safer house to live in. She spent three months keeping a low profile before the town was recaptured by the Nigerian military. “The militants destroyed everything in the school. I just thought that my future was over,” she says. “When the town was re-captured by the military, after 2-months UNICEF provided a learning centre. I was very happy because the school was close to home.”  Despite her ordeal she hopes to one day become a teacher. “I have a passion because I like the way the teachers teach me. If I don’t come back to teach, who will?’ she asks. © UNICEF/ UN0311775/Kokic


As UNICEF’s Executive Director said this week in Spain, “education can make or break a child’s future.” This week’s conference is a significant opportunity to reinvigorate efforts to protect schools in armed conflict. Many successful movements have shown that the cumulative effect of sharing experience, adopting good practice, exerting influence over parties to conflict, ensuring accountability for violations, and partaking in concerted advocacy efforts can gradually change parties’ conduct in war.


* This piece has been written in a personal capacity. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.


Top photo: Eleven-year-old Ehsanullah is standing in a classroom destroyed in 2007 by fighting between anti-government elements and the US forces in Kandahar province in Southern Afghanistan. The fighting in his district forced him and his family to flee to a nearby district, where he was able to attend school for the first time. “My first year in school was so good,” he says. “We had a proper building for our school.” But on returning home, Ehsanullah says he found the contrast striking. “Now all I see are bullet holes in the walls, even in the blackboard,” he says. “I don’t like the fighting. It destroyed our school.” © UNICEF/UN0309055/Kokic