A disturbing trend during recent armed conflicts is that states tend to treat school buildings less respectfully than they treat hospitals and religious buildings. One important cause of this trend is the different privileged status afforded to each building type under the law of war. The law of war equally forbids targeting hospitals, religious buildings, schools, and other civilian buildings unless they become justifiable military objectives. But ironically, it fails to equally protect these buildings from being used for such objectives in the first place. Under the law of war's privileges for civilian hospitals and most religious buildings, armed forces cannot use these buildings for military purposes--without exception. In contrast, the law of war's privilege for school buildings ambiguously allows military use based on necessity. This is surprising because military use converts a school from a privileged site into a justifiable target for an opposing army. Even more troubling, such use increases the likelihood that an opposing army will confuse converted and unconverted schools and wrongfully attack one that shelters children and other civilians.
State practice paradoxically both opposes and accepts military use of schools during war. The ongoing conflict in Iraq provides many examples. In 2003, the United States condemned Iraqi military commanders for employing school buildings and grounds as sites for artillery, materiel storage, and headquarters. (1) Human Rights Watch noted that the Iraqi practice directly contributed to the number of civilian casualties because those buildings became lawful targets for the coalition forces. (2) The United States also denounced hostile insurgent forces for using school buildings as weapons caches and bases to launch attacks. (3) Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, U.S. military commanders employed school buildings for military headquarters and command posts. (4) Of note, American forces utilized school buildings that they characterized as abandoned or as former schools while Iraqi and insurgent forces exploited ones that were still occupied by students. (5) But these incidents beg the question of why armed forces respect hospitals and religious buildings more than schools?
This article considers whether the law of war provides school buildings with a less privileged status than it gives to hospitals and religious buildings. It proposes that three critical issues necessarily affect any legal regime that seeks to establish privileged status for a specific type of building during war: 1) defining which buildings qualify; 2) ensuring maintenance of privileged status by prohibiting their military use; and 3) ensuring their recognition by armed forces.
The article's first section reviews how the law of war and humanitarian law evolved to address these issues for hospitals and religious buildings. It traces how the law of war originally gave these buildings only a derivative privileged status that was based entirely on the presence of civilians and noncombatants. Through a series of treaties, the law of war gradually gave direct, independent protection to hospital buildings based on their inherent humanitarian nature and to most religious buildings based on their cultural and spiritual value to a people. The law shifted from focusing exclusively on the obligations of military attackers in targeting to creating equally shared obligations for attackers and defenders not to use these buildings for military purposes.
The second section shows that the law of war's privilege for schools has not evolved to the same extent because it fails to clearly answer the above three questions for school buildings. Current international law does not provide most with a direct, clear, and independent privileged status based on their inherent humanitarian nature or value to a people. Rather, it protects schools against military use based solely on the presence of civilians and noncombatants. …