Jasper van Dijk: government needs to maintain credibility when it comes to schools in war zones

16 December 2014

Jasper van Dijk: government needs to maintain credibility when it comes to schools in war zones

Foto: SP

It’s beyond comprehension that the government has withdrawn from the struggle against the misuse of schools in times of war, says Jasper van Dijk.

The government must stay active internationally to back the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. In addition it should itself adopt the Guidelines in its military policy, doctrine and training. If not, it will have little remaining credibility as a leader in the struggle for peace and justice globally.

Across the world almost 58 million children aren’t attending school. A majority of them, some 30 million, fail to do so as a consequence of war and armed conflict in their country. Their schools have been completely destroyed or badly damaged and plundered by the warring parties, or are put to use as military bases, barracks, detention centres and storage rooms for weapons. This is the case in more than seventy countries.

Child Soldiers

It needs no further explanation to show that this represents a frontal attack on the right to education and the security of pupils and teachers in general. It also brings with it the danger of recruitment of child soldiers and the threat of sexual violence. Between 2009 and 2013 the number of attacks on schools grew to 9,500, according to a recent report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA).

That’s why in 2013 the coalition, consisting of organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Save the Children began, together with various representatives of national governments and United Nations bodies, to draw up the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. Recently this process was completed and today, 16th December, the Guidelines were presented at the UN in Geneva by the ambassadors of Norway and Argentina.

Armed forces from UN member states and non-state armed groups will receive a request to incorporate six simple rules of conduct into their military policies. The Guidelines are in themselves not legally binding and have no influence on existing obligations under international law. The Guidelines respect international law as it stands, and propose no amendments to this body of law.

The Netherlands too has, in the last two years, made efforts to promote the Guidelines, through having representatives at important meetings and by working on the content of the draft guidelines. Recently, Development Minister Lilianne Ploumen informed Parliament that in 2015 the government would be urging other states to involve themselves in this process.


Nonetheless, last week as a member of the parliamentary standing committee on defence, I received an urgent letter from several members of the GCPEA. The letter contained a call on the government to use today’s meeting in Geneva to confirm anew its preparedness, along with other European nations, to back the Guidelines and to strive to interpret them in terms of military policy, doctrine and training in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands has, after all, pulled out of the group of coordinating core countries in Geneva. The government even wants to give up openly promoting the Guidelines amongst the country’s European neighbours.

It isn’t clear why. Possibly disagreement has arisen between the centre-right VVD and centre-left Labour Party, the two members of the government coalition, over the adoption of the Guidelines. Does the Minister of Defence, the VVD’s Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, anticipate problems in carrying out operations? There will be numerous scenarios to be considered, but in relation to their contents, there exist no serious arguments standing in the way of the Guidelines’ adoption. As a leader in the struggle for peace and justice, the Netherlands would have little credibility should our nation refuse today to continue.

As spokesman on both education and defence I am calling on those in the government to adopt the Guidelines. As the GCPEA also says: let’s put an end to military use of schools and give these back to scholars.

This opinion piece first appeared, in the original Dutch, in the daily newspaper Reformatorisch Dagblad.

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