Education in situations of conflict, disasters and other emergencies

Education, arguably the least resilient public service to external shocks, is one of the first to be impacted by conflict and violence. Thirty-seven million primary and lower secondary children are out of school in crisis-affected countries. At the same time, Gordon Brown, the UN special envoy for education, has argued for doubling of education aid from $12 billion per annum to $22 billion per annum to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals. According to his analysis, failure to do so will mean that more than half the world’s children, nearly 800 million, will leave school without the skills to get a job.

Such is the immense value of education that its disruption is also a frequent consequence of displacement, and may often be a cause of it, as well. To add to that, girls’ education is disproportionately affected by conflict, as they are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys in countries affected by conflict.

Although most research focuses on conflict-related impacts on education, 175 million children are likely to be affected by disaster annually. Emergencies often result in children being subject to violence, becoming orphaned, separated from their families, recruited into armed groups, forced to marry young, sexually abused, trafficked or, as is often the case, several of these issues at the same time. Moreover, their education is typically disrupted by emergencies.

More specifically, in relation to conflict, educational facilities, students and teachers have been deliberately targeted by armed actors in 70 countries surveyed between 2005 and 2013, with a significant pattern of attacks observed in 30 of them. Weapon contamination and the presence of unexpected ordinance in school facilities and along access roads is a further consequence of conflict. Education providers and students have been threatened, injured or killed in such instances and damage or destruction caused to school infrastructure can cause students to go without schooling for extended periods of time.

In addition, educational facilities—including functioning facilities—have been militarily occupied or otherwise used by State or non-State armed actors in the majority of countries affected by armed conflict over the past decade. Close proximity with weapon bearers also puts students—notably minors—at risks of various abuses, such as forced recruitment, sexual violence or abduction, and disrupt their learning atmosphere.

International humanitarian law (IHL) does not establish a right to education as such. IHL does, however, contain rules that are aimed at guaranteeing that, in situations of armed conflict, education can continue. In particular, the Geneva Conventions (GC) and Additional Protocol (AP) 1 specifically address education with regard to the following situations in international armed conflict: all children under 15 orphaned or separated as a result of war (Articles 13 and 24 GC IV): civilian internees, notably children and young people (Articles 94, 108 and 142 GC IV); occupation (Articles 50 GC IV); circumstances involving evacuation of children (Article 78 AP I); and prisoners of war (Articles 38, 72 and   125 GC III).

AP II obliges parties to a non-international armed conflict, States and non-state armed groups, to provide children with a number of fundamental guarantees. They must provide them with the care and aid that they require. In particular, children must receive an education, including religious and moral education, in keeping with the wishes of their parents, or in the absence of parents, of those responsible for their care (Article 4.3(a) APII).

In both international and non-international armed conflict, children affected by armed conflict are entitled to special respect and protection, which can comprise education (Rule 135 Customary International Humanitarian Law).

Students and educational personnel are presumed to be civilians.  As any other civilians, they are protected from direct attack, unless and for such time as they directly participate in hostilities, regardless of whether a school or other educational facility has turned into a military objective. Relatedly, schools and other educational facilities are presumed to be civilian objects and are, thus, protected against attack; like for all other civilian objects protection may cease when educational institutions are turned into military objectives. Even in such case, all feasible precautions would have to be taken when attacking such military objective to avoid, or at least minimize, incidental harm to civilian students and educational personnel and attacks expected to cause excessive incidental harm are prohibited.

Parties to an armed conflict have a general obligation to take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects under their control against the effect of hostilities. These obligations also apply with respect to schools and other educational facilities and with respect to students and teachers.

In most international treaties, educational institutions are not listed as forming part of cultural property. However, State practice indicates that educational building in general can be considered as part of cultural property. This implies that special care must be taken in military operations to avoid damage to buildings dedicated to education unless they are military objectives (Rule 38 CIHL, applicable both in international armed conflict and non-international armed conflict) and that seizure of or destruction or willful damage done to institutions dedicated education is prohibited (Rule 40 CIHL, applicable both in IAC and NIAC). In some exceptional cases, educational institutions considered of great cultural importance benefit from a heightened protection (1954 Hague Convention and 1999 Second Protocol: and APII).

In the Philippines, Education Secretary Leonor M. Briones, appealed to the Islamic State-linked Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups to spare children in the ongoing clashes between government forces and terrorist groups in Marawi City. “Children should not be part of the conflict,” Briones said, adding that “2,000 displaced students had enrolled in Iligan City, while 1,000 others had transferred to Cagayan de Oro, Cebu City and in Northern and Central Luzon. Around 17,000 of at least 20,000 school children in Marawi City had not yet enrolled since schools opened on June 5”. According to DepEd records, Marawi City has 87 public and 45 private schools. More than 700 teachers (out of 1,424 public school teachers) remain unaccounted for. Classes have not resumed in Marawi City because all public schools had either been shut down or destroyed after clashes between government forces and terror groups started in the city. As aptly stated by Secretary Briones,  “Schools are zones of peace xxx children are innocent. They are Filipinos, and they have the right to be educated.”

  1. ODI, education cannot wait. Proposing a fund for education in emergencies.
  3. ODI, education cannot wait. Proposing a fund for education in emergencies.
  4. Save the children (2015), More and better: Global action to improve funding, support and collaboration for education in emergencies.
  5. Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, Education under Attack—2014, p.8.
  6., June 13, 2017


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