The last few weeks have been characterised by yet more tragic news from conflict zones all over the world. Amidst all the bad news, however, recently we saw one significant step into the right direction – as the UK Government announced it will endorse the Safe Schools Declaration.
The Safe Schools Declaration is an international commitment, backed by UNICEF, that allows states to express political support for the protection and continuation of education during armed conflict. The Declaration takes several steps to protect children’s right to education during and after war: it collects data on attacks on educational facilities and investigates legal violations, develops and promotes conflict-sensitive approaches to education, and ultimately seeks to ensure schools are not used as weapons of war. By signing the Declaration, the UK will help to improve the safety of students, teachers, and schools in warzones.
As recent weeks have reminded us, international rules are frequently broken during violent conflicts. With protective walls, running water and plenty of room, many school buildings have qualities that make them desirable military bases. Indeed, schools are being repeatedly targeted in the increasingly urban battlefields of modern warfare. The impact of armed conflict on education poses urgent social challenges for conflict areas, as well as for the international community. Warfare exposes students and teachers to danger, denies children their right to education, and so deprives local communities and the global society of the foundations on which to build their future.
In 2015, there were almost 3,000 reported attacks against education in 20 conflict countries. In the same year, there were over 200 cases of military use and occupation of schools. On average, these saddening numbers equate to 15 life-threatening attacks on children and education every school day. Protecting schools from military use is therefore a vital step in ensuring that schools do not become battlegrounds for war, but remain places of safe learning.
In 2016, I and many others called for the UK to sign the Safe Schools Declaration. Since its launch in 2015, 74 states—now including the UK—have signed the Declaration. However, this is not enough. Out of the 53 Commonwealth countries, only 14 have joined. It is essential that the UK now encourages other Commonwealth Governments to endorse the Declaration. The more international support the initiative gains, the larger its impact will be, and the more lives will be saved.
By endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, the UK helps to encourage greater compliance with international law, and to increase accountability and shift attitudes on how fighting forces should act. And most importantly, by signing the Declaration, the UK helps to make sure that schools are what they should be—safe learning environments and playgrounds for children, and not battlegrounds for war.