Sarah M. Field - @rightsstreams
27 November 2016

‘I felt that humanity has ended. I mean, a place of learning, to be hit in this way, without warning… where is humanity? ...It is supposed to be illegal in any war to strike such places…’ 

A teacher’s account of airstrikes on al Shaymeh School, Hodeidah, Yemen (25 and 27 August 2015) in ‘Schools Under Attack in Yemen’ Amnesty International Report (11 December 2015).

‘Bodies were on the ground. We didn’t know what we were stepping on. […] There was no armed presence around the schools. Had there been, we wouldn’t have been teaching on that day.’ 

A teacher’s account of airstrikes on schools in Haas, Syria (26 October 2016) in ‘Russia/Syria: Satellite, Video Imagery Confirm School Attack’ Human Rights Watch Report (16 November 2016).

The testimonies of these two teachers, one Yemeni, one Syrian, evoke the egregious hurt and harm of attacks on schools. These attacks, among others, illume the imperative of conducing compliance with foundational rules of international humanitarian law, in particular, as recalled recently by the Security Council in relation to the Syrian attack above, the obligation to distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives, and the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks. Undergirding this is an another imperative of respecting the civilian character of schools.  The two are deeply interconnected. The international legal protection accorded schools from attack is necessarily contingent on their civilian character. It is of these dual imperatives that the Safe Schools Declaration was born. Led by the Governments of Norway and Argentina, 56 states have thus far signed the Declaration and committed to implementing the associated Guidelines.  And this matters.

1.  The six Guidelines may be viewed as contributing determinacy to the humanitarian rule to respect and ensure respect for the civilian character of schools of which may be inferred from existing international humanitarian law:

             a. general humanitarian rules according protection to the civilian population and more specific rules informing their content; in conjunction with

             b. thematic rules relating to the protection of education, and children’s entitlement to special respect and protection.

2.  Contributing determinacy to the rule, or clarifying its content and scope, has the potentiality to escalate conduced compliance with the law by making it easier to make the law known and harder to justify noncompliance.

3.  Escalating conduced compliance with the rule, as expressed in the Guidelines, places determinate delimits on the military use of schools, and thereby their transformation from a civilian object to military objective, limiting their  loss of protection from attack.

4.  Delimiting the military use of schools protects schools as both spaces of learning, and in accordance with broader applicable humanitarian rules, as safe spaces of learning.

5.  Protecting schools, in this way, unlocks the continuation of education in the space, and thereby the right ‘to’ education.

6.  Respecting and ensuring children’s right ‘to’ education, in turn, unlocks children’s broader multidimensional  rights ‘in’ and ‘through’ education as illuminated  by eminent scholars and treaty and Charter bodies.

7.  Therein lies its rights multiplying effects for developing our individual and collective — civil, political, social, economic and cultural — progressive potential.

8.  Education itself,  as argued in a related mini series, is part of the solution to conducing compliance and safeguarding (if not demanding more from) the law into the future.


Sarah M. Field has a blend of applied and academic experience supporting the fulfilment of international human rights law through international research and legal advocacy projects. A particular professional interest is critically and constructively probing peace processes from a juristic, human rights and child rights perspective. It is complemented and reinforced by concurrent (and formative) experience supporting domestic knowledge and practice of international human rights law, with a specific focus on equality and non-discrimination, at domestic and international levels. Sarah has an LLB from Trinity College Dublin and a PhD from University College Cork, Ireland. She is presently a National Project Coordinator of the cross-European GENOVATE Project at University College Cork, Ireland, and blogs occasionally at


For further information, see our page on Education in Emergencies, which includes a document on all relevant provisions of international lawand the following news item on the Safe Schools Declaration.

Update: As of 16 June 2017, 66 states have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration.

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