It is well known that armed non-State actors (ANSAs) often pose a threat to education. This includes attacks against educational facilities and staff, as well as military use of schools. ANSAs—along with States—have, for instance, been found responsible for the military use of schools in 21 out of 26 countries (p. 33). There is, however, little awareness and data regarding the multiple roles ANSAs may play with respect to education in armed conflicts. In an attempt to address the gap, throughout 2015 and 2016, Geneva Call held interviews with selected ANSA representatives. The aim of the consultations was to better understand their views towards education. Based on these discussions, Geneva Call recently published a report reproducing the views of ten ANSAs. This post highlights report’s main findings with respect to the following issues: i) the facilitation and provision of education; ii) attacks against schools; iii) the use of schools for military purposes; iv) ANSAs’ knowledge of the legal framework; and v) other risks to education.

Some methodological remarks

For the purpose of this research, Geneva Call consulted the following ANSAs from four different contexts: the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (South) (RCSS/SSA-S) and Karenni National Progressive Party/Karenni Army (KNPP/KA) from Burma/Myanmar; one ANSA which did not wish to be named from another Asian country; the Alliance des Patriotes pour un Congo Libre et Souverain (APCLS), from the Democratic Republic of Congo, five ANSAs affiliated with the Free Syrian Army; and the People’s Protection Units/Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), also from Syria.

The ANSAs were chosen based on two criteria: the existence of challenges to the protection of education and an already existing dialogue with Geneva Call. These groups are diverse in terms of size, structure, motivations and the level of their territorial control. While most of them were consulted in written form—by answering a standardized questionnaire prepared by Geneva Call—some consultations took the form of face-to-face interviews. To encourage frankness, the consultations were carried out on a confidential basis, with non-attribution.

Although the consulted ANSAs do not represent the full picture of all armed groups, their responses shed some light on their perceptions and allow us to view the protection of education from an important, but overlooked angle. These views may also offer entry points for discussion with the ANSAs. Further research will be necessary to verify whether their stated ‘practices’ match their acts and whether their views can be applied to a broader spectrum of actors.

Findings from the interviews

On facilitation and provision of education

All consulted ANSAs stressed the importance of education, in particular with a long-term goal of developing a prosperous society. Various ANSAs referred to education as a basic need and lifesaving (‘as important as food and water’, some claimed). A few said it was a way of building resilience, enabling children to live better lives in the future. Most ANSAs stated that children in their areas of control were facing difficulties in having full access to education. This was because of the ongoing hostilities, lack of human and material resources and the population’s economic situation—which either forced children to work or did not allow parents to pay the tuition fees. Lack of access was also linked to the remoteness of the regions in which some of the ANSAs operate.

When asked about which actors provided education in their areas of control, the answers varied depending on the context. In some territories, the State continued to provide education, either because of a lack of effective control over the territory by the ANSA or because the ANSA had decided to allow government employed teachers to continue working.

In others, religious institutions or humanitarian organisations were supporting the provision of education. ANSAs claimed to do their best to assist these activities. Various groups even said that they covered expenses of some schools and helped students so they could come to class. This included the provision of clothing, food and at times financial aid.

Some ANSAs controlling large territories, or operating in areas where there are no or few service-providers, have themselves set up education committees or departments to make education available. They have established schools and provided trainings and salaries for teachers. All of the interviewed ANSAs that delivered education themselves have created their own curriculum or used that of a foreign State. They considered the State curriculum to be politizcised. Discussions with these groups demonstrated the difficulties they encountered when seeking recognition of their degrees by the States’ institutions. Another identified challenge was that the schools located in areas under ANSAs’ control sometimes would teach in local languages. This presented challenges in recruiting qualified teachers.

The topic of ANSAs as providers of education has, in fact, already been addressed by Geneva Call in the past. In a 2015 report, this was recognized as a ‘blind spot in the international normative framework and external response in regard to ensuring the right to education’ (p. 4). A main reason for this is because international actors often face challenges in potential assistance and capacity building that is related to the State-centric nature of international law and the unlawful character of ANSAs under domestic legislations. Consequently, childen living in ANSA controlled areas are left with no or little external support to access education.

On attacks against schools

Most consulted ANSAs reported that there have been attacks on schools in their areas of control. One of them explained that although the attacks had not been directed at the educational facilities, schools had been affected by indiscriminate attacks. Other ANSAs mentioned lootings, student deaths and damage to and destruction of schools due to attacks directed at them. The means included heavy artillery, aerial bombardments and intentional rifle fire. One group explained that in the past, where there had been heavy fighting and schools were under attack by the opposing party, they used to defend the schools by mounting rifles on the rooftops and by encouraging older students to defend their school and protect the younger children. Some ANSAs considered the seizure of a school to be an attack. They also viewed sending people into the school to investigate and gather intelligence from teachers and administrators by forcing them to file regular reports as an attack. According to them, such actions hindered access to eduction as teachers could feel threatened, fear reprisals and leave their positions.

When the ANSAs were asked how they would react to the military occupation of a school by their enemies, their answers differed. One ANSA admitted that if the opposing forces were using schools, its own forces would attack the facilities. Another ANSA stated that it would attempt to expel the enemy from the school while preserving the building.

The interviewed groups shared some ideas on how to avoid these situations. They mentioned that there should be no military presence in or around schools at all and that schools should be considered neutral sanctuaries, controlled only by civilian authorities. They proposed a system in which schools would be demilitarized zones—with no military presence and no fighting. One ANSA shared its experience of having concluded an agreement on the protection of schools and religious sites in ceasefire and peace talks as a way of improving the situation. Finally, one ANSA called for more and better international monitoring on this issue. Interestingly, a number of ANSAs seemed to find it useful to place armed security personnel in or around schools to prohibit anyone other than the schools’ staff and students to enter into the building. They also saw it as a temporary solution to reduce the fear parents had of sending their children to school. One ANSA, however, shared that it had tested this alternative and did not find it to be effective in making the school safer.

On the use of schools for military purposes

ANSAs considered the following to be ‘military use of schools’: use of schools as military bases, camps and headquarters, as outposts, as frontline positions, as temporary shelters, to coordinate the military activities or to store military equipment or the belongings of the fighters. Though not a use contributing to military action, one ANSA also affirmed that schools had been used by its forces as medical points and to hospitalize people.

A distinction was made by ANSAs between the use of functioning schools and those that had been abandoned. Regarding the former, most of them considered this use to be inacceptable, even on weekends and holidays. In the latter case, almost half of the interviewed ANSAs said that they no longer considered the buildings to be schools. They considered they could use abondoned schools for military purposes. Among the other half, two ANSAs thought these schools should not be used for military purposes, not necessarily due to their nature, but rather because their location near densely populated areas could endanger the population in the vicinity. Only two of the interviewed ANSAs considered that abandoned schools should not be used for military purposes in order to allow them to function in the future.

Different reasons were proposed as to why ANSAs used schools. In particular, they were seen as convenient. They were empty, big and solid buildings that could be used by ANSAs’ members to rest, gather military equipment, repair certain objects and get shelter from the rain. One ANSA stated that it did not consider the military use of a school as problematic, as long as it was only done in extreme situations, and for reasons related to the security of the students or for imperative military reasons (where the ‘nation’ was endangered). Some ANSAs claimed that considering that schools are normally located in the middle of villages, occupation of the schools would give the group more control over the village. One ANSA explained, on the contrary, that the use of schools would place its troops at risk with no possibility of watching the enemy’s movements, as the buildings were located at the bottom of a valley.

Knowledge of the legal framework

ANSAs were asked whether they felt they knew the relevant rules of international law applicable to the protection of education. Three out of ten ANSAs answered positively, although one of them acknowledged that this depended on who within the group was asked. The same ANSA stressed that even where the rules were generally known, it was necessary to monitor the behavior of the troops. Two ANSAs answered to this question with a clear ‘no’, and five affirmed that they had some basic knowledge. Of the five, one ANSA specified that the officers knew the basic rules on conduct of hostilities, but that they were not familiar with those on the protection of education and schools.

Other risks to education in armed conflicts

ANSAs mentioned several other issues, or actions by parties to the conflict, that could have a negative impact on education. Apart from those that were linked to the general situation of insecurity, ANSAs were mainly concerned with the content of what was taught to the students. The politicization of education constitutes a threat, as, according to them, it may turn schools, students and educational personnel into military targets. This would be the case when education is perceived as fueling hatred, division and exclusion, or when it aims at assimilating or indoctrinating children.

Conclusions and key findings

Geneva Call’s research has identified both negative and positive practices. The above observations suggest that although there might be different perceptions on some specific issues related to education and that a number of the ANSAs interviewed admitted having carried out actions which may have had a negative effect on education, all of them recognized its importance.

Acknowledging the role that ANSAs can play in this field would be the first step to enhance the protection of education in armed conflicts. In this regard, two issues should be noted. First, not all ANSAs are familiar with the rules protecting education in armed conflict. The lack of knowledge of international law is certainly one of the main challenges when addressing the roots of violations. For instance, what represents ‘military use’ and ‘attacks on education’ is not always understood, and the exact meaning of these terms should be shared with ANSAs. Second, despite their need for training and capacity building, they are often neglected by relevant organisations dealing with this topic. Opportuities are thus missed to positively influence the protection and provision of education in areas controlled by ANSAs.

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Geneva Call is a member of Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), and has been engaged on the protection of education as part of its work on the protection of children in armed conflict. It was involved in the drafting and promotion of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, which it disseminates amongst armed non-State actors. Further research on the role of ANSAs with respect to education will be conducted in a joint project between Geneva Call and the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.