Safe Schools Declaration and Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict

The Safe Schools Declaration

Since it was opened for endorsement at the Oslo Conference on Safe Schools in May 2015, 80 countries around the world have signed the Safe Schools Declaration, signaling their commitment to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities from the worst effects of war. The Declaration was developed through consultations with states in a process led by Norway and Argentina in Geneva in early 2015.

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express support for protecting education from attack during times of armed conflict; the importance of the continuation of education during war; and the implementation of concrete measures to deter the military use of schools.

When they endorse the Declaration, states commit to undertake several common-sense steps to make it less likely that students, teachers, schools, and universities will be attacked, and to mitigate the negative consequences when such attacks occur.

The Commitments

Countries that have endorsed the Declaration have pledged to implement some or all of the following measures:

  • collect reliable data on attacks and military use of schools and universities;
  • provide assistance to victims of attacks;
  • investigate allegations of violations of national and international law and prosecute perpetrators where appropriate;
  • develop and promote "conflict sensitive" approaches to education;
  • seek and support efforts to continue education during armed conflict;
  • support the UN's work on the children and armed conflict agenda; and
  • use the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, and bring them into domestic policy and operational frameworks as far as possible and appropriate.

Endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration

States can announce their endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration at any time by making a public statement and/or sending an endorsement letter (sample letter available here) to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs via its embassies or permanent missions or directly at Seksjon.for.humanitaere.sporsmal@mfa.no.

A Framework for Cooperation

The Safe Schools Declaration is a framework for collaboration and exchange, and endorsing states agree to meet on a regular basis to review implementation of the Declaration and use of the Guidelines.

In March 2017, the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs of Argentina co-hosted the Buenos Aires Conference on Safe Schools. This conference was a key global moment to refocus attention on the issue of attacks on education and offered an opportunity for endorsing states to highlight steps they had taken to raise awareness of the Safe Schools Declaration, and to implement the commitments contained in the Declaration. The conference clearly showed how, together, the endorsing states are building a community of like-minded states committed to ensuring that children can go to school in safety no matter where in the world they live.

To learn more about the outcomes of the Buenos Aires Conference on Safe Schools, read the conference report and Chair’s Summary here.

International Support for the Declaration

In May 2017, the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, urged all Member States to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration in his report to the United Nations Security Council on protection of civilians in armed conflict.

His Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. Virginia Gamba, echoed this call in her 2017 annual report to the General Assembly.

Most recently, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, issued a recommendation for all states to endorse the Declaration in his 2017 report on protecting the rights of the child in humanitarian situations.

Which states have endorsed the Declaration?

Check the current status of endorsement here, or check the map below to see all countries that have endorsed the Declaration.

Military use of schools and universities

Around the world, in places experiencing armed conflict, schools and universities are becoming part of the battlefield. The use of schools and universities as bases, barracks, firing positions, and armories may transform places of learning into legitimate military objectives under international law, thus endangering students and teachers, and rendering their educational infrastructure and materials vulnerable to attack.

The presence of fighting forces in schools and universities also often leads to students dropping out, reduced enrollment, lower rates of transition to higher levels of education, and overall poorer educational attainment. Girls are often disproportionately affected.

The Guidelines

The Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict were drawn up with the aim of better protecting schools and universities from use for military purposes by armed forces and armed groups, and to minimize the negative impact that armed conflict has on students’ safety and education.

They provide concrete guidance to states and non-state armed groups for the planning and execution of military operations. They may also serve as a tool for organizations engaged in monitoring, programming, and advocacy related to the conduct of armed conflicts.

The Guidelines were developed over several years, through consultations with ministries of foreign affairs, defense, and education; armed forces; the International Committee of the Red Cross; civil society; and academia, in a process spearheaded by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, starting in 2012, and finalized under the leadership of Norway and Argentina in 2014.

The Guidelines are not intended to be legally binding, but they complement existing international humanitarian and human rights law. The Guidelines do not change the law – they merely facilitate compliance with the existing law by effecting a change in practice and behavior.

What do the Guidelines say?

A core aim of the Guidelines is to protect against the risk of armed forces and groups converting schools and universities into military objectives by way of military use and exposing them to the potentially devastating consequences of attack.

While it is acknowledged that certain uses would not be contrary to the law of armed conflict, all parties should endeavor to avoid impinging on students’ safety and education, using the Guidelines as a guide to responsible practice.

The Guidelines are based on what is practically achievable. They acknowledge that parties to armed conflict are invariably faced with difficult dilemmas requiring pragmatic solutions. The Guidelines reflect evidence of good practice already applied by some parties to armed conflict for the protection of schools and universities during military operations.

States and intergovernmental bodies are urged to encourage all parties to armed conflicts to act in accordance with these Guidelines, and to help enable them to do so. The Guidelines are intended to be used as a tool to raise awareness of the military use of schools among parties to armed conflict, and to facilitate discussions of the broader issues of protection and education in conflict among military forces, governments, and NGOs.

How is the Declaration making a difference?

A number of states have taken measures to implement the Declaration and the Guidelines. Examples of implementation in conflict-affected countries – such as Nigeria, Somalia, and the Central African Republic – are shared in The Safe Schools Declaration: A Framework for Action, demonstrating the value of the Declaration as an instrument that can guide changes in behavior, policy, and doctrine.

GCPEA shares regular updates on endorsement and implementation of the Declaration in its newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

In Somalia, in 2017, in the context of implementing the Declaration, AMISOM handed a number of educational buildings back to the authorities, rehabilitating them first, and working with partners to ensure the grounds were clear of explosive remnants.

In 2016, the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan, inspired by the Guidelines, issued directives to the Ministry of Interior, highlighting the government’s endorsement of the Declaration and calling on security forces to evacuate schools, as highlighted in the 2017 report of the Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. Virginia Gamba.

Following the Central African Republic’s endorsement of the Declaration, the UN peacekeeping mission there issued a directive drawing upon the text of the Guidelines. MINUSCA has highlighted this directive several times in press releases and uses it as a tool to advocate successfully for armed groups to vacate schools.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) disseminates the Guidelines to its delegates in the field, uses the Guidelines as an advocacy tool in its discussions with arm bearers, and has offered to support governments to implement the Guidelines upon request.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations included the Declaration and Guidelines as a reference under international norms and standards on children’s rights in their updated Child Protection Policy, released in June 2017. UN peacekeepers are already required not to use schools in line with the DPKO ban on the practice.

Shortly prior to their recent endorsement of the Declaration, Denmark updated their military manual, which now states that actors should exercise restraint with respect to military use of child care institutions, schools, and other education institutions.

New Zealand has amended its Law of Armed Conflict Manual to stipulate that the defence forces are only to use educational infrastructure for military purposes if absolutely necessary; for the minimum time possible; and must ensure that all feasible steps are taken to ensure that civilians, especially children, are protected from the effects of attack.

NGOs have used the Guidelines as a tool to convince military or armed groups of the need to stop using schools. This has been done, for example, by Save the Children in Iraq and Geneva Call in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

GCPEA Resources

The Safe Schools Declaration: A Framework for Action, provides governments with suggestions, recommendations, and examples of good practice to assist them in implementing the Declaration.

The Framework for Action is available in English, Arabic, and French

 

The GCPEA-Roméo Dallaire toolkit aims to assist states in implementing the Guidelines, and comprises practical tools intended as teaching aids, guidance, and aides-memoire for national Ministries of Defense, military trainers, officers, and soldiers involved in the planning and conduct of military operations.

The toolkit is available in English, ArabicFrench and Spanish.

 

Lessons in War 2015 outlines how, in the majority of countries with armed conflicts, armed forces or armed groups used schools and other education institutions. Between January 2005 and March 2015, armed forces or armed groups used education institutions in at least 26 countries in conflicts across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America.

Lessons in War 2015 is available in English, Arabic, French and Spanish

Development of the Guidelines

The Safe Schools Declaration is the instrument through which states can express broad political support for the protection and continuation of education in armed conflict and endorse and commit to implement the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.

The Guidelines were developed through an extensive consultation process:

  • In May 2012, in Geneva, GCPEA convened a roundtable with experts from governments, militaries, UN agencies, and international and human rights organizations.
  • Based on recommendations from that meeting, GCPEA commissioned a former British military officer to prepare the first draft of the Guidelines.
  • In November 2012, GCPEA convened a larger expert consultation in Lucens, Switzerland, with representatives from 12 states, as well as the human rights and humanitarian law community.
  • A drafting committee, including state representatives and other experts, was then formed to further refine the Guidelines.
  • In June 2013, the Draft Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict were released.
  • In June 2014, Norway announced that it would lead the process of finalizing the Guidelines and developing a means by which states could commit to implementing the Guidelines.
  • The Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict were finalized through a state-led process headed by Norway and Argentina in December, 2014 and unveiled at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland.