The Safe Schools Declaration, an initiative designed by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack to safeguard educational institutions in conflict zones, is yet to be signed by the UK government.
Though to attack a school or use it for military purposes does violate rights to education enshrined in international human rights treaties, the act itself is not illegal. No international law explicitly prohibits the utilisation of educational centres for military purposes, and the practice is ‘often overlooked’ according to the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division.
The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack was founded in 2010 and is ‘a unique inter-agency coalition focused on addressing the problem of targeted attacks on education during armed conflict.’ The Coalition is responsible for penning the Safe Schools Declaration, an ‘inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries with the opportunity to express support for protecting students, teachers, school, and universities from attack during times of armed conflict.’ 69 countries have endorsed the declaration thus far, but there is yet to be a response from the British government. Human Rights Watch has launched a petition to be delivered to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in favour of signing the declaration.
Educational buildings have been attacked in 34 countries in the last 4 years, and this violence threatens the pupils and teachers within these institutions in many ways. Of course, the most direct threat is that of violence, causing injury and death. Educational buildings are often used tactically by military forces in urban conflict contexts, inviting fire from opposition forces, endangering the pupils within. Educational buildings have been subjects to bombing and siege in countries around the world.
Schools are used as barracks, detention centres, and in some cases torture chambers. Children attempting to continue their studies are thus exposed to traumatising sights and environments that can trigger or worsen mental health issues.
Children sharing buildings with soldiers can lead to a host of other diverse threats to young people’s livelihoods. In conflicts involving militia forces and informal armed movements, the recruitment of child soldiers is a profound danger. In other cases children carry out forced work for soldiers as servants, or worse, are abused as sex slaves.
Educational institutions can come under heavy attack in times of conflict for a myriad of reasons. Depending on the root causes of the conflict, schools and universities can suffer attack due to their political, ideological, religious or ethnic identities, as well as the tactical, military value of the building.
Schools and universities play pivotal roles in the emotional development of young people, and in an area’s sense of community in times of hardship. Schools are designed to be safe spaces where teachers can be trusted and where children can build their futures through learning. A school offers a place to play safely and escape the hardships that a backdrop of conflict brings. Military involvement in schools during times of conflict not only places children directly in harm’s way, but also denies them this space of safety and trust. The psychological impact of the abuse of this space can be extremely harmful.
A military presence and violence in schools prevent local communities from using educational institutions as the communal meeting places that they should be, places that are so sorely needed in times of conflict and division.
The Safe Schools Declaration seeks to safeguard educational buildings from any military involvement and protect pupils and teachers from these threats. Though it is encouraging that 69 nations have already backed the declaration, and the work of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has made valuable headway, it is essential that the British government joins its allies in condemning this practice by signing the agreement.
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