Schools must be protected from attack

Comment article in the Norwegian newspaper Adresseavisen,11 May 2015

Norway is playing a leading role in role in promoting an enhanced international effort to ensure protection of children and education in crisis and conflict situations.

There are few things that are more important for children than feeling safe on their way to school and in the classroom. It is especially important that school is a safe haven for children and young people in war-torn and conflict-ridden countries, somewhere they can be helped to work through painful experiences and gain an education that offers them opportunities for the future. In practice, the opposite is often the case. In countries affected by war and crisis, going to school may be one of the most dangerous things a child or adolescent can do.

The school massacre in Kenya in April was one of a series of brutal attacks on schools and universities. Military forces, armed groups and security forces have attacked thousands of pupils, students, teachers and educational institutions over the last five years, according to the report Education under Attack 2014. Schools have been attacked and used for military purposes in 70 countries. The most heavily affected countries are Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. Nevertheless, education is one of the sectors that receives least support during a crisis.

Just a few years ago, school attendance in Syria was nearly 100 %. Today, nearly three million children can no longer go to school because of the war. It is crucial to ensure that this generation is not lost. This is why 20 % of Norway’s humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis is earmarked for education and protection of children in Syria and its neighbouring countries. For a country like Lebanon, it is no easy task to give refugee children an education and at the same time maintain adequate educational services for Lebanese children.

All children have the right to an education – regardless of where they live. Nevertheless, there are still more than 120 million out-of-school children and young people worldwide. Sadly, this figure has not changed in recent years. Some of the reasons for the lack of progress are the fact that 1.2 billion people are still living in extreme poverty, the failure of governments to give priority to education, and the existence of complex, long-lasting conflicts and humanitarian crises.

In many ways, crises and conflicts make it even more important to safeguard the right of children to an education. If schools can be protected from hostilities and natural disasters, being in school will protect children and save lives. We know that children who attend school in poor and vulnerable areas are less likely to be forced into child labour, recruited to armed groups, sexually exploited or married early. Building peace and fostering development are also easier in countries where the next generation has a good education.   

If schools are attacked or used by armed groups for military purposes, the consequences for individual pupils are clearly very serious. But such incidents also have social, economic and political ripple effects on the local community and for our globalised world as a whole. This shows how important it is that Norway is engaged in protecting children and education in crisis and conflict situations. The Government intends to double aid for education by 2017. The protection of schools and pupils is a key aspect of Norway’s humanitarian efforts and Norway’s increased focus on global education.

The large number of attacks on schools and universities demonstrates the need for simple guidelines for the parties to armed conflict. Together with Argentina, Norway has played a leading role in the development and promotion of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. These are designed as a practical tool for ensuring compliance with existing obligations under international humanitarian law and a more systematic effort to prevent attacks on schools, pupils and teachers. We will seek to ensure that as many countries as possible endorse these guidelines and put them into practice. At the end of May, Norway will be hosting the Oslo Conference on Safe Schools, and states represented at the conference will be encouraged to endorse a Safe Schools Declaration, and thus undertake to comply with the guidelines.

International law makes clear the principle that both school buildings and pupils are civilian targets that must be protected against attack. The problem is that this principle is not respected. Moreover, if schools are used for military purposes, for example as barracks, look-out posts or sniper posts, they become legitimate military targets under humanitarian law. This why it is crucial for all parties, both states and non-state armed groups, to respect the rules on protection of civilians and refrain from using schools for military purposes during armed conflict. And, not least, we must ensure that those who break the rules are held accountable.   

If we are to be successful in protecting schools and pupils, we will need far more political effort and commitment than we are seeing today. Several NGOs, particularly Save the Children Norway, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH), deserve recognition for the important work they have been doing for several years to promote protection and give children and young people access to education. We look forward to continuing our close cooperation at both national and international level.

No one should need to be afraid of going to school. We all have a responsibility for ensuring that schools are a safe haven for children and young people, regardless of where in the world they grow up. This is even more important for children in places affected by conflict or crisis.