Protecting Schools is an International Responsibility: From Aleppo to Northern Nigeria

The tragic irony that cost 17 students in an Aleppo school their lives last week must not be lost on the international community. When their school was bombed, they were preparing for an art exhibition depicting the horrors of war and their hopes for more peaceful times. Their art exhibition should have helped relieve some of their psychological stress and reinforced their resilience as survivors of three years of war. Instead, these children became the latest victims of targeted and unlawful attacks on school children in Syria.

Attacks on education in Syria are rampant and among the highest in the world. Teachers and students have been targeted and schools have been bombed and taken over for military use. Only the day before the Aleppo school was bombed, another school in Damascus was struck, killing at least 14 people and wounding more than 80. Universities, schools and even nurseries have not been spared. In 2012 alone, the U.N. Security Council reported that more than 3,000 schools had been destroyed and more than 1,000 were used as shelters for internal refugees.

Syria has become one of the most dangerous places for a child to live. At least 10,000 children have lost their lives since the conflict began. Nearly 3 million children are displaced and another 1.2 million have become refugees. At least 2 million Syrian children need psychosocial support—a critical role that can be played by schools serving displaced children inside Syria and refugees in neighboring countries.

The ‘No Lost Generation’ campaign advocates that education and psychological protection for all Syrian children is in fact possible, but only with more investment from the international community. The international community has not lived up to its responsibility, especially toward the 3 million children who have no access to education. Rather than going to school, these children move about a warzone and are at an even greater risk of being victimized.

In 2000, governments signed the UNESCO Dakar Framework for Action, which recognized the need to protect the right of children in conflict countries to access safe schooling.  However, not enough progress has been made since then and attacks on education globally are on the rise.  Grave violations against school children are being committed in 30 countries, with many of the worst offenses occurring in Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Syria between 2009 and 2012, as outlined in the 2014 Education Under Attack report.

Despite the grim facts, there is an opportunity to act on current momentum. Since Malala Yousafzai captured the world’s attention with her remarkable resilience in 2011, attacks on schools such as the kidnapping of the 230 girls from a school in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram insurgents seem to receive heightened media coverage resulting in valuable global awareness.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack is building on this global awareness and pushing for concrete action.  It is calling on states to finalize and endorse the Lucens Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. The guidelines, drawn from international humanitarian law and good practices for protecting schools, are a set of rules directed at both government forces and non-state armed groups in conflict countries.

A sustained international effort is needed to finalize, endorse and most critically enforce the Lucens Guidelines. It is an important step toward honoring the 17 children who died in the Aleppo school and all children who become victims of violence simply because they were at school. It is also important for rebuilding the confidence of students and parents in the safety of schools, especially in conflict-affected countries, where half of all of the out-of-school children already live.  If the international community does not extend the support needed for access to safe schools, what hope do children in Syria or any other affected country have for building a more peaceful future?