37 countries commit to protect education from attack, record casualties – but not UK
Schools and universities have been used for military purposes by government forces and non-state armed groups in 26 countries since 2005 – the majority of countries experiencing armed conflict during this period. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack has also documented a systematic pattern of attacks on education in 30 countries between 2009 and 2013.
On 29 May 2015 at the Oslo Conference on Safe Schools, hosted by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thirty-seven countries committed to protect education from attack by joining the Safe Schools Declaration. In doing so, these countries endorsed and agreed to use the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. Intended for both state forces and non-state armed groups, the Guidelines call on armed actors to avoid using educational buildings or making them targets of attack. The Declaration also commits countries to recording the casualties of attacks on education and facilitating such data collection; assisting the victims of attacks; and supporting humanitarian efforts for the continuation of education during conflict.
The Declaration, which is open to other countries to join (over 40 now have), represents the start of a process to strengthen the protection of education, and its endorsing countries committed to meet regularly to review their progress.
UK rejects declaration
The UK did not join the Declaration. In a written answer to Labour MP Wes Streeting, the Foreign and Commonwealth stated that “While we support the spirit of the initiative, we have concerns that the Guidelines do not mirror the exact language and content of International Humanitarian Law. We consider that the full implementation of International Humanitarian Law provides the best protection for civilians in all situations of armed conflict. The UK and several other countries therefore did not sign the Safe Schools Declaration in Oslo in May.”
This approach and rationale appears to be highly inconsistent the UK’s work on other, similar international political commitments which seek to enhance civilian protection during conflict. For example, the UK’s global leadership in the initiation of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative resulted in the G8 and UN Declarations on ending sexual violence in conflict, and the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict. Rejecting the Safe Schools Declaration, and opposition to other initiatives such as on stopping the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, is also inconsistent with the UK’s role as the global lead on the protection of civilians in armed conflict at the UN Security Council.
If the UK is not prepared to join the Safe Schools Declaration, nor to support a new international commitment on explosive weapons in populated areas, the credibility of its role as the global leader on the protection of civilians would be seriously at risk. If the UK maintains its current approach, it will only block efforts by progressive countries to enhance the protection of civilians worldwide, which the UK should be at the forefront of.
William Hague stated upon launching the G8 declaration on sexual violence in 2013:
Ending the 17th century slave trade was deemed impossible, and it was eradicated. Achieving global action against landmines, cluster munitions and climate change was thought impossible, yet the world acts on these issues. Only two weeks ago we secured an International Arms Trade Treaty, one that many people thought could never be adopted.
Today we know the facts about sexual violence in conflict, and we have the means to address it. So we in Britain will not look away or rest until the world faces up to its responsibilities to eradicate this violence. This Declaration is a milestone in that effort, and a turning point in our collective history.
This sense of the need and possibility for progressive change and the enhancement of international rules and commitments applies equally to other efforts to improve civilian protection. The UK must take on its role with the respect to the protection of civilians fully, or relinquish it.
Visit the website of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack
Learn about the problem of explosive weapons in populated areas
Photo: Utenriksdepartementet UD, https://www.flickr.com/photos/utenriksdept/17609767703/in/photolist-sPq2So-tL75NN-tLr4Pt-sPq3jL-sPAjx6-sPq2Rb-tLr52H-tLr4Y6-tM3ffe-tLVQLM-tLAN2y-tukzVd-sQ7Eqx/