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

ICRC Position

18 December 2018
The Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict

The Safe Schools Declaration, launched in Oslo in May 2015, highlights the broad impact of armed conflict on education and outlines a set of commitments to strengthen the protection of education and ensure its continuity during armed conflict. The first of these commitments is the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict (Guidelines). These Guidelines, developed between 2012 and 2014, propose a set of actions that parties to the conflict can take to reduce the military use of schools and universities, and to minimize the negative impact such use may have on students' safety and education.

The process leading to the development of the Guidelines and the Declaration was spearheaded by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) in 2012, and further led by Norway and Argentina, with a wide range of States supporting the initiative. The ICRC was consulted by States and GCPEA on various aspects during the drafting of the Safe Schools Guidelines, though the final content was ultimately determined under the leadership of Norway and Argentina.

Below is a summary of the ICRC's position:

  • The ICRC welcomes the aim of the Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines to improve the protection of education in situations of armed conflict. By implementing the Guidelines, armed forces and non-State armed groups may limit the effect of armed conflict on students, teachers, educational facilities and education in practice.
  • The ICRC sees the Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines as useful reference documents in relation to the protection and continuity of education during armed conflict. We have actively disseminated the Guidelines amongst relevant delegations to be used, when appropriate, as a reference tool in the protection dialogue with the parties to conflict. We have also integrated the Guidelines, among other tools, in a training module on the topic of access to education for our armed and security forces delegates.
  • The Safe Schools Guidelines, in themselves, are not legally binding rules, and they do not purport to change existing international law. In this regard, the ICRC welcomes the express mention in the Guidelines that the military use of schools is not necessarily contrary to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in the preamble. The ICRC stresses that the lawfulness of a particular operation under international law is determined by the applicable binding legal framework.
  • The ICRC understands the Guidelines as intended to lead to a shift of behaviour in practice that may result in a reduction in the military use of schools and universities. This endeavour is not at odds with IHL, even though the Guidelines recommend actions that go beyond what is required under IHL. To the contrary: avoiding that education facilities become military objectives and therefore liable to attack goes a long way in ensuring the safety of civilians – students and education personnel – and in preserving the civilian character of schools and their corresponding protection from attack, so that they can continue to safely operate during armed conflict.
  • The ICRC respects the diversity of views that exist on the Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines among States. The ICRC considers that the decision to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration rests on States' own appreciation of the Safe School Guidelines in light of their particular context, legal and military culture, as well as on their policy priorities and aspirations.
  • The ICRC stands ready to offer its legal reading of the Guidelines and to provide technical advice to all interested parties regarding how to best implement them in specific contexts, regardless of whether they have already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration or are simply considering it.

For any question on the ICRC's position contact: policy@icrc.org or vmurphy@icrc.org for legal questions.

For information on the Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines: http://www.protectingeducation.org/safeschoolsdeclaration