Japan’s Policy on Protection of Education in Armed Conflicts

During times of armed conflicts, civilians, particularly students, tend to be targeted and victimized in violation of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, or the Fourth Geneva Convention. This is due to the fact that schools are apt to be used for military purposes in wartime. In order to protect schools and children in armed conflict, the government of Norway, hand in hand with civil society groups,  has sought to initiate the Safe Schools Declaration (SSD) as a soft law rather than a legally binding treaty. The SSD was drafted and opened for endorsement by countries at an international conference held in Oslo, Norway, on May 28, 2015. At the conference, hosted by the Norwegians, 37 governments agreed to the SSD. The SSD is the outcome of a movement organized by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), comprising international organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children, initiated in 2010.

The Six Guidelines of the Safe Schools Declaration

The six guidelines of the SSD, slightly simplified for convenience, are as follows: 1) functioning schools and universities should not be used for military purposes, 2) schools and universities that have been evacuated should not be used for military purposes, 3) schools and universities must never be destroyed, 4) parties to armed conflict should consider all feasible alternative measures, including warning the enemy in advance, 5) the fighting forces of parties to armed conflict should not be employed to provide security for schools and universities, and 6) all parties to armed conflict should incorporate these guidelines into their military manuals, rules of engagement, doctrine, operational orders, and other means of dissemination. As many as 108 countries have endorsed the SSD as of May 24, 2021.

Policy Debate on the Safe Schools Declaration in Japan

In Japan, there have been political deliberations on the SSD at the National Diet. In the Committee on Foreign Affairs on April 18, 2018, Oguma Shinji of Kibonoto (Party of Hope) raised a question on why the Japanese government is not willing to endorse the SSD, despite the fact that Japan had been involved in the drafting process of the declaration. In response, Nagaoka Kansuke, a senior Foreign Ministry official, explained that the government is supportive of the main purpose of the SSD, but would not endorse the declaration for unspecified reasons. Nagaoka emphasized that while the SSD bans the use of schools and universities for military purposes, such a regulation is beyond the scope of international humanitarian law.

Oguma went on to ask whether the Ministry of Defense has plans to introduce missile defense systems, such as PAC3, to schools in the event of a military emergency. In response, Vice-Defense Minister Yamamoto Tomohiro replied that the government would not answer such a question, but that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), in accordance with Article 88 of the SDF Law, should abide by relevant international law, particularly international humanitarian law, while protecting children and other civilians.  Indeed, civilian objects, including schools, should be protected and must not be attacked during armed conflict in accordance with Article 52 of the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949.

In a subsequent Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on November 14, 2018, Toyama Kiyohiko of Komeito asked a question about the SSD, pointing out that the Norwegian government and civil society had requested the Japanese government endorse the declaration. Foreign Minister Kono Taro explained that the government would not endorse it, for such a decision would affect operations of the SDF in case of a military emergency. In response, Toyama suggested that it would be possible for the government to partially endorse the SSD with certain conditions. He emphasized that it is not difficult for the government to endorse the SSD, given all it would need to do is send an official letter of endorsement to the Norwegian government and other related organizations.

Study Sessions on the Safe Schools Declaration at the Japanese Parliament

In addition to the Diet deliberations between parliamentarians of the ruling and opposition parties, a study session on the SSD was organized by Human Rights Watch in collaboration with Komeito at the House of Councillors on May 30, 2018. A number of high school students joined the study session and argued that military uses of schools were minimized in countries that had endorsed the SSD. The students had conducted a nationwide petition campaign and collected over 12,000 signatures calling on the Japanese government to endorse the declaration. The signatures were submitted to the Foreign and Defense Ministries as part of the campaign.

Likewise, another study session was held on November 22, 2018, co-organized by Save the Children and Human Rights Watch at the Diet, where Steven Haines, Professor of Public International Law at the University of Greenwich, was invited. Diet members of both ruling and opposition parties, officials of the foreign and defense ministries, as well as high school and university students joined the session. Notably, Haines was involved in the drafting of the SSD as well as the British government’s endorsement of the declaration. Haines stressed that if schools are used militarily, they would be attacked, and that if schools are used purely for educational purposes, it should be unlawful to attack them. Regarding this point, an official of the Defense Ministry stated that it might be difficult for the SDF not to conduct patrols of schools in the event of a military emergency.

Implication of the Request by the United Nations for Japan’s Policy Change

On September 9, 2020, the International Day to Protect Education from Attack, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres argued that all governments should guarantee every student can continue to learn even in the event of conflict, and underscored that attacks on education must stop. Guterres furthermore articulated that “I urge all United Nations member states to ensure the provision of education for all, even in times of conflict, and particularly for the most vulnerable, such as refugees and displaced persons”. Despite the request by the United Nations Secretary-General, the Japanese government has still not endorsed the declaration.

By endorsing the SSD, Japan will be able to make a diplomatic contribution to reinforcing conventional international law regarding the protection of civilians. The endorsement of the SSD would not affect the functionality of the Japan-U.S. military alliance, as the SSD is not a legally binding agreement. Furthermore, the endorsement of the SSD is consistent with the spirit of Article 26 of the Japanese Constitution which stipulates “All people shall have the right to receive an equal education correspondent to their ability, as provided by law”. Hence, it would be desirable and important for Japanese politicians and policymakers to discuss the feasibility of endorsing the new international legal framework to protect students and education in current and future armed conflicts.