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Protecting schools from military use

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This report collects recent and historic examples of laws, court decisions, military orders, policies, and practice by governments, armed forces, non-state armed groups, and courts aimed at protecting schools and universities from use for military purposes.

The examples in this report should encourage more governments and non-state groups to adopt their own concrete measures to protect students, educators, and the institutions in which they study.

Since 2014, the military use of schools or universities has been documented in at least 30 countries with armed conflict or insecurity, according to our research. That number represents the majority of countries experiencing armed conflict during the past decade. Examples can be found in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The military use of schools is therefore a global problem, needing international attention and response.

Schools and universities have been taken over either partially or entirely to be converted into military bases and barracks; used as detention and interrogation facilities; for training fighters; and to store or hide weapons and ammunition.

Our research has documented how the use of schools for military purposes endangers students’ and teachers’ safety, and can interfere with students’ right to education.

Protections for education from military interference date back at least to Roman times when Emperor Constantine proclaimed that all professors of literature must be free from the obligation to accommodate or quarter soldiers in order that “they may more easily train many persons in the liberal arts.” For more on historical protections, see chapter 3.

1935: The Roerich Pact between various countries in the Americas states that educational institutions “shall be considered as neutral and as such respected and protected by belligerents.”

1948: The United Nations General Assembly adopts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, consisting of 30 articles, including that “everyone has the right to an education.” In the following decades, various international and regional treaties and declarations repeat and elaborate on this core right.

1949: The Fourth Geneva Convention lays out protections for civilians during armed conflict, including that an occupying power—a military force controlling the territory of another country—“shall, with the cooperation of the national and local authorities, facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children.” The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which promotes respect for international humanitarian law and its implementation in national law, has elaborated that this requirement is “very general in scope,” and that occupying authorities “are bound not only to avoid interfering with [the] activities [of schools], but also to support them actively… The Occupying Power must therefore refrain from requisitioning staff, premises or equipment which are being used by such establishments.”

1977: The two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions outline further protections for children, schools, and education, including recognizing that receiving an education is a “fundamental guarantee” for children, even in situations of non-international armed conflict.

In 2009, the issue of the military use of schools began to garner international attention. Early that year, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child—the international body of experts that oversees implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child—recommended that parties to the treaty “fulfill their obligation therein to ensure schools as zones of peace and places where intellectual curiosity and respect for universal human rights is fostered; and to ensure that schools are protected from military attacks or seizure by militants; or used as centres for recruitment.”

Later in that year, Mexico, acting as president of the UN Security Council, noted the council “urges parties to armed conflict to refrain from actions that impede children’s access to education, in particular … the use of schools for military operations.”

Since then, both the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Security Council, increasingly joined by other international and regional bodies, have continued to elaborate protections that should be provided to protect children’s safety and students’ right to education from the potential negative consequences of military use of schools.

In 2012, in response to this increased interest, a coalition of UN agencies and civil society organizations initiated consultations with experts from the ministries of foreign affairs, education, defense, as well as the armed forces of countries from various world regions, to develop guidelines directed at both government armed forces and non-state armed groups on how to avoid using schools and mitigate the negative consequences of such use. In 2014, the government of Norway took over the global consultation on these guidelines, and in December 2014 oversaw the release of the finalized Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.

In early 2015, the governments of Norway and Argentina led a consultative process that resulted in the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment by countries to do more to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities during armed conflict, including through use of the Guidelines to refrain from using schools and universities for military purposes. As of October 1, 2021, 112 countries had endorsed the declaration.

In June 2015, the month following the launch of the Safe Schools Declaration, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2225, which expressed “deep concern that the military use of schools in contravention of applicable international law may render schools legitimate targets of attack, thus endangering the safety of children.” The Security Council encouraged all member states “to take concrete measures to deter such use of schools by armed forces and armed groups.”

See chapter 1 for more information on international law and standards protecting schools from military use. In addition to laws and standards at the international level, many individual countries have also adopted their own laws and policies to protect schools and universities from military use. Indeed, protections for schools are likely to be most effectively guaranteed when they are explicitly enumerated domestically. Chapter 2 contains examples of legislation, military orders, jurisprudence, municipal ordinances, and other statements of doctrine and policy from around the world, including from armed non-state actors.

Most of these examples of domestic laws and policies fall within five linking themes, although some countries fall into multiple categories:

1 Many countries that have experienced the military use of schools, or countries that have deployed their armed forces to conflict zones, have created new policies in response to these experiences.

2 At least eight countries—Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Sudan—have included commitments to refrain from all military use of schools as part of ceasefire or peace agreements between parties to armed conflict.

3 A number of countries, particularly in Latin America, have laws making university campuses immune from action by government security forces: national police and military units cannot enter the grounds without the university rector’s authorization. Such laws draw from traditions to valu e universities’ autonomy or independence from the state.

4 At least seven countries—Bangladesh, India, Ireland, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, and Sri Lanka— have laws modeled on the Manoeuvres Act enacted by the British parliament in 1897 regulating the conducting of military manoeuvres and excluding certain areas, such as schools, from encampments or other related interferences. The UK law (and its subsequent updates) did not define what constitutes a military manoeuvre. In 1991, during the Gulf War, the then-UK minister of state for the armed forces broadly defined the term as “the strategic or tactical movement of a military force.” A fair reading of the term might also suggest that it refers to military training exercises, involving a degree of simulation, sometimes popularly referred to as “war games.” Even with this limited definition, such laws are still relevant to protecting schools from military use in light of the adage that soldiers should “fight like they train.”

5 Since 2009, and hand-in-hand with increased international awareness of the problems created by the military use of schools and universities, and the drafting of the Safe Schools Declaration in 2015, there has been more consideration of the issue of protecting schools from military use in some domestic contexts. States have begun to incorporate the Safe Schools Declaration’s guidance into their trainings, military manuals, orders, and legislation. For example, in 2020, the Central African Republic made the occupation of schools a criminal offense on the same terms as an attack on a school. Further domestic examples are expected in the coming years.

Disclaimer: The inclusion of a law or policy in this collection does not reflect any assessment by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack as to whether the relevant country or entity has adhered to its own doctrine. Instead, the examples aim to encourage greater awareness that alternatives to military use of schools have been considered both feasible and necessary, and to ease greater monitoring for their enforcement.