At the Third International Conference on Safe Schools, which was hosted in Spain last month, several participants wanted to know how to address attacks against schools and education by armed non-State actors (ANSAs), as it is undisputed that they play a central role in contemporary warfare. While States have formal opportunities to commit themselves to the protection of schools, ANSAs do not, even though it is crucial to acknowledge the role they play in education in armed conflict.

According to a recent report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attacks (GCPEA), ANSAs have either used education facilities for military purposes or attacked them in several countries, such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan and Ukraine. The U.N. Secretary General has also listed ANSAs from Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the DRC, Iraq, Syria and Yemen as being responsible for attacks against schools and hospitals.

The challenges related to ANSAs’ compliance with international law have shown the importance of implementing strategies specifically aimed at improving their respect for the law. In this context, Geneva Call, a humanitarian non-governmental organization, engages these actors to increase their adherence to humanitarian norms. As of June, Geneva Call has engaged with approximately 120 groups on different thematic issues. Despite the challenges that dealing with ANSAs certainly entail – in particular considering problems of access and their changing structures, Geneva Call’s experiences show that having a humanitarian dialogue with these entities is an important step to ensure compliance with the law. Here, is how Geneva Call has dealt with the protection of schools and education in armed conflict.

Armed Non-State Actors and the Protection of Education

In 2015, the Safe Schools Declaration was opened for endorsement. The document provides States with the opportunity to support the protection and continuation of education in armed conflict. Importantly, it is the political tool to implement the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.

Generally, as parties to non-international armed conflicts (NIACs), ANSAs are bound by international humanitarian law (IHL), and the protection of education and schools can be seen as part of their general obligations in terms of conduct of hostilities. Article 4(3) of the 1977 Additional Protocol II, also binding upon ANSAs, affirm that “[c]hildren shall be provided with the care and aid they require, and in particular…they shall receive […] education”. In addition, the Guidelines also urge all parties, including ANSAs, “not to use schools and universities for any purpose in support of their military effort. While it is acknowledged that certain uses would not be contrary to the law of armed conflict, all parties should endeavour to avoid impinging on students’ safety and education” (emphasis added). Although the Declaration only allows States to endorse it, States and ANSAs are “invited to adopt the Guidelines in the spirit in which they are promulgated, and to adapt them in practice to suit their specific circumstances.”

The Declaration also welcomes efforts to disseminate the Guidelines “and to promote their implementation,” among ANSAs. Dissemination activities on the protection of schools and education are indeed essential to generate respect for the rules. Armed groups’ members, in general, are not trained as those of the armed forces of a State are. They may have little knowledge of the actual content and nuances of humanitarian norms beyond some general notions, such as the protection of civilians – although the definition of who is a civilian may sometimes remain unclear.

A recent study by Geneva Call, which reproduced the views of 10 ANSAs from different conflicts, shows that what represents “military use” and “attacks on education” is not always understood by these groups. More often than not, once an individual becomes a member of a group, she/he is immediately sent into combat. As the International Committee of the Red Cross has pointed out, in many NIACs,

bearers of arms with little or no training in IHL are directly involved in the fighting. This ignorance of the law significantly impedes efforts to increase respect for IHL and to regulate the behavior of the parties to conflicts. Indeed, there is little likelihood that a body of law will be observed unless those whose duty is to respect and apply it are instructed and trained to respect its obligations.

Providing information and training on international norms is therefore essential to increase ANSAs’ respect for this legal framework.

Geneva Call’s Approach

Geneva Call works directly with ANSAs to build their knowledge of, and capacity to implement their humanitarian obligations. The key tool of engagement is an innovative instrument known as the Deed of Commitment, which allows ANSAs an opportunity to express their respect for specific international rules. Four Deeds have been developed so far: 1) the Deed of Commitment for Adherence to a Total Ban on Anti-Personnel Mines and for Cooperation in Mine Action; 2) the Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Children from the Effects of Armed Conflict; 3) the Deed of Commitment for the Prohibition of Sexual Violence in Situations of Armed Conflict and towards the Elimination of Gender Discrimination; and 4) Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Health Care in Armed Conflict.

The four Deeds of Commitment mirror international rules applicable to States. They include both negative and positive obligations, allowing armed groups to pledge to respect these norms. As of June, 63 armed groups have signed one or more Deeds of Commitments and have, in general, respected the rules they have committed to comply with. Geneva Call monitors the implementation of the Deeds of Commitment through field visits and third-party monitoring. The signatory ANSAs themselves are also asked to report on their implementation. Signatory groups also accept that Geneva Call publicizes situations of compliance and non-compliance of the Deeds.

The signing of a Deed may also be particularly relevant when the State fighting against the group has not ratified the international convention dealing with that specific humanitarian norm. Decisions by ANSAs to sign certain Deeds were, in fact, instrumental to the accession of States to international treaties due to internal social pressure within the State in question. For example, Sudan ratified the Ottawa Convention in 2003, after the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA/M) signed the corresponding Deed of Commitment in 2001. High-level officials involved in mine action in that country indicated that the government would not have not ratified the Ottawa Convention if not for the SPLA/M’s signing of the Deed. Interestingly, when South Sudan became a new State in 2011 and the SPLA/M became its government, the first humanitarian treaty it acceded to was the Ottawa Convention.

Engaging Armed Non-State Actors on the Protection of Education

As a member of the GCPEA, Geneva Call has played an active role since the beginning of the drafting process of the Declaration and the Guidelines. In the framework of its child protection approach, the Guidelines have been referred to with the goal of deterring the military use of schools and to protect education from attacks. Even before States were given the opportunity to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, Geneva Call had started disseminating the Guidelines amongst ANSAs.

Geneva Call has also engaged ANSAs on the Guidelines as part of its Deed of Commitment protecting children from the effect of armed conflict. Article 7 of the Deed commits signatory groups to take concrete measures towards ensuring that children have access to education and to avoid using schools or premises primarily used by children for military purposes. So far, more than 50 ANSAs have been engaged on this topic and 26 ANSAs have signed this Deed, taking concrete measures to implement the obligations contained therein. The Deed of Commitment for the prohibition of sexual violence in situations of armed conflict and towards the elimination of gender discrimination also commits ANSAs to take concrete measures to ensure equal access to education.

In addition, since 2015 Geneva Call has developed specific training material on the protection of education in armed conflict. Specific training and awareness-raising sessions on the protection of education have been carried out with ANSAs in various contexts, including in the DRC, Myanmar, Sudan and Syria. In 2015, Geneva Call and Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC) convened a workshop on the provision of education by ANSAs and the suitability of the international response, in which U.N. agencies, human rights and humanitarian organizations, academic experts, and representatives of ANSAs participated. Several recommendations on how to ensure that education continues and is protected in armed conflicts came out of the workshop, including some specifically proposed by ANSA representatives. The Guidelines were also disseminated and discussed during a meeting with representatives of 21 ANSAs from 12 countries in November 2016.

Considering the lack of data regarding the multiple roles ANSAs may play with respect to education in armed conflict, Geneva Call also held interviews and dissemination sessions with selected groups’ representatives from Syria, Myanmar and the DRC, to better understand their views towards education. Based on these, a report was published addressing issues such as the facilitation and provision of education by ANSAs and in territories controlled by them; attacks against schools; the use of schools for military purposes; ANSAs’ knowledge of the legal framework; and other risks to education.

Despite these important steps, engaging armed groups on the protection of schools and education still remains a challenging process, as some of them reject the applicable legal framework for a variety of reasons. Armed groups’ fragmentation or decentralized structures can also present challenges for humanitarian organizations attempting to disseminate protective messages. The first step, in any case, is to acknowledge the role ANSAs can play in this field, as some of them even provide education in their areas of control. Geneva Call’s experience suggests that it is possible to engage groups on this issue, and that a constructive approach can be effective in enhancing their compliance with humanitarian norms.

Image: Iraqi students inspect the damages of a classroom following a blast at a school in Baghdad’s Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City on December 7, 2009. Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images