Issuing Presidential Statement, Security Council Expresses Grave Concern about Increase in Attacks on Schools, Underlines Education’s Contribution to Peace
UNSC 8756th Meeting Coverage
UN, September 14, 2020
The Security Council today urged Member States to develop effective measures to prevent and address attacks and threats against schools, including by developing domestic legal frameworks.
In a presidential statement (document S/PRST/2020/8) issued by Niger, Council President for September, the 15-member organ reaffirmed the right to education and its contribution to the achievement of peace and security, expressing grave concern about the significant increase in attacks on schools in recent years and the alarming number of children denied access to quality education.
The Council also voiced deep concern at the military use of schools in contravention of applicable international humanitarian law, encouraging Member States to take concrete measures to deter the use of schools for such purposes.
In this regard, the Council requested the Secretary-General to continue to monitor and report on the military use of schools and attacks against or kidnapping of children, teachers and other personnel, also calling upon United Nations country-level task forces to enhance such surveillance.
Expressing deep concern that girls and women may be the intended victims of attacks targeting schools, the Council noted that the specific consequences of such attacks include incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, threats of attacks at school and on the way to and from school, abductions, forced marriage, sexual slavery, human trafficking, and any resulting stigma and grave consequences on their health, all of which may further impede the continuation of their education.
The statement also included a specific reference to the alarming situation in Africa’s Sahel region, which was the focus of today’s ensuing debate.
Briefing the Council, Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said that in the last two years in Mali, teachers were threatened and killed, education facilities demolished, and learning material burnt, leading to the closure of more than 1,260 schools, even before COVID-19. Similarly, the last 12 months have seen a rise in attacks against schools and protected personnel in Burkina Faso, including the burning of schools and the kidnapping of teachers forcing 2,500 schools to shut down, depriving hundreds of thousands of children from education. “Schools must remain safe havens where girls and boys can obtain education, without discrimination and without fear,” she emphasized.
Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that out-of-school children and children living in conflict generally, face a higher risk of recruitment by armed forces or groups, gender-based violence, child marriage and early pregnancy, and abuse and trafficking. “Thirty years after the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is clearly a moral obligation that we are failing to meet,” she said, emphasizing that words, policies, pronouncements, normative frameworks and legislation do not reflect the situation on the ground. She said UNICEF is using the pandemic as an opportunity to speed up the development and use of distance learning tools that “can provide an excellent alternative to a traditional classroom for children living under conflict”.
Marika Tsolakis of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack urged the Council to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration in a gender-responsive manner, support United Nations country teams to safely engage with warring parties on the protection of education, and ensure that the Organization’s peace operations and special political missions have a child protection mandate and the necessary backing to effectively monitor and report on attacks on education and military use of schools.
In the ensuing debate, the representative of Niger spoke both in his national capacity and on behalf of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa and Tunisia, saying that lack of access to education for young people in situations of armed conflict is “the barbarity of our time”. He acknowledged important developments at the global level, such as the signing of an action plan between the Central African Republic and the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict aimed at deterring attacks on schools in that country, adding that similar efforts should be repeated elsewhere.
Belgium’s delegate, welcoming the presidential statement’s reference to impunity, said the whole range of judicial mechanisms must be used to ensure that attacks on children do not go unpunished. As Chair of the working group on children, Belgium spares no effort to uphold Council mandates regarding children in situations of armed conflict, including the listing mechanism, which is a powerful tool that delivers results.
Most Council members welcomed the adoption of the presidential statement as well as the recent signing of the Safe Schools Declaration by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
The Council also heard briefings by two civil society youths from Niger. Also speaking were the representatives of Estonia, Viet Nam, United States, Dominican Republic, Russian Federation, France, Germany, China, Indonesia and the United Kingdom.
The meeting began at 10:12 a.m. and ended at 12:13 p.m.
VIRGINIA GAMBA, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, said that in resolution 2143 (2014), the Council recognized that the military use of schools is critically affecting children’s access to education but decided not to expand listing criteria, calling instead for Member States to take “concrete measures” to deter from the military use of these facilities. Since the adoption of the Safe Schools Declaration in 2015, 105 Member States have become the signatories to the instrument. While such progress is welcome, she said that is not enough, expressing concerns that in the Sahel, schools are increasingly targeted precisely because they are schools, with girls becoming the primary victims.
In the last two years in Mali, teachers were threatened and killed; education facilities demolished, and learning material burnt leading to the closure of over 1,260 schools, even before COVID-19, she continued. Similarly, the last 12 months have seen a rise in attacks against schools and protected personnel in Burkina Faso, including the burning of schools and the kidnapping of teachers forcing 2,500 schools to shut down, depriving hundreds of thousands of children from education. In Asia and Latin America, there is a disturbing rise in attacks on schools in indigenous communities.
She said that the COVID-19 pandemic has made things much worse. It created favourable conditions for child marriages, the recruitment of child soldiers and deprived children of access to schools. Teachers are leaving schools and parents are fearful of sending their children there due to insecurity. As a result, children are denied their rights to education. “This must stop,” she said, stressing that “schools must remain safe havens even in times of war.” Education is not a choice but a right. Military use of schools constitutes an attack on education. All parties to conflict must better protect education personnel and facilities in times of war and pandemic.
HENRIETTA FORE, Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that as schools around the world prepare to open their doors in the midst of the pandemic, “we have an opportunity to once again shine a light on those places where going to school can be dangerous — and even deadly”. Denial of education is just one of the challenges faced by children in conflict situations, particularly in the Sahel. Out-of-school children, and children living in conflict generally, face a higher risk of recruitment by armed forces or groups, gender-based violence, child marriage and early pregnancy, and abuse and trafficking. Describing the experience of a 12-year-old boy whose school in north-east Nigeria had been attacked and set on fire, she said that protecting schools from attack, and providing education in the midst of such emergencies, is more than a humanitarian need, but also a moral obligation.
“Thirty years after the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is clearly a moral obligation that we are failing to meet,” she said, emphasizing that words, policies, pronouncements, normative frameworks and legislation do not reflect the situation on the ground for students, teachers and schools. She summarized the efforts being made by UNICEF and its humanitarian partners to help out-of-school children, adding that the agency is using the pandemic as an opportunity to speed up the development and use of distance learning tools — “tools that can provide an excellent alternative to a traditional classroom for children living under conflict”. To support that work, UNICEF calls on donor States to commit to multi-year, flexible funding to help communities rebuild education systems over the long term.
Such efforts are critically underfunded in the Sahel, where UNICEF faces a funding gap of 66 per cent across seven countries, one of the biggest in the world, she said. That gap must be urgently closed before an entire generation of young minds is lost. Such work, however, only treats the symptom and not the disease of attacks on education, she said, requesting the Council to lend its voice and influence to condemn all attacks on schools and students alike — whether through resolutions or presidential statements. It must take concrete steps to protect education from attack, end impunity for those who violate international law and demand that all States endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines did on 9 September, becoming the 105th State to do so. “We must protect education from attack and end the military use of schools,” she said, inviting future Council Presidents to make attacks on education a regular thematic topic for deliberations.
MARIKA TSOLAKIS, Senior Researcher, Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, welcomed today’s adoption of the presidential statement and other measures taken by Governments. Noting that on 9 September the international community marked the first International Day to Protect Education from Attack, she recalled that 105 States, including a majority of Council members, signed the Safe School Declaration. Research shows there were 11,000 attacks on schools over past five years. In 34 countries, schools were used for military purposes. The Sahel region is of a critical concern. Armed groups threaten teachers, with dozens of schools used as execution sites. These attacks have a ripple effect because teachers flee and schools shut down, leaving hundreds of thousands of children without education. Victims also suffer psychological and economic stresses. Women and girls are disproportionately affected, but a lack of gender-disaggregated data prevented gender-sensitive responses. The Council should take a lead on this agenda, holding perpetrators accountable, she said, urging it to endorse the Declaration in a gender-sensitive manner, support United Nations country teams and ensure that peace operations have child protection mandates.
RIMANA YOUSSOUF ASSANE MAYAKI, Youth Parliament of Niger, speaking via videoconference, said that she is in her last year in school in Niamey and looking forward to university. She had no problems during her time in school, but had she grown up in other parts of Niger, it would have been a different story. Like many countries, Niger has not been spared by armed conflict, as terrorist attacks undermine development efforts in such areas as health care, security and education. Schools have been burned down and teachers issued death threats. Terrorists do not want children to learn or to awaken their knowledge and become more tolerant to diversity. Terrorism has many causes, including poverty, unemployment and erroneous religious ideology, but in addition, a lack of a good education among those who become terrorists is another factor. As a result, illiteracy grows, and parents are forced to marry off their daughters so that they may not be exposed to insecurity in schools.
“We have an entire generation whose childhood was marked by the sound of gunfire,” she said, emphasizing that the right to life and to education are set out in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Investigations must be carried out, perpetrators prosecuted and victims given psychosocial support. She went on to say that education for children who live in the midst of armed conflict is at the heart of the work of the Youth Parliament of Niger, over which she presides. During its last session, over two hours, its members shared their indignation and recommendations with the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice of Niger. Hopefully, one day, children will be able to live in safety and get a good education, she said.
HADIZA, a member of an organization that promotes education in conflict zones, said that she has won a prize in literature, but when education is attacked, it is impossible to fulfil her potential. In Niger, thousands of children are displaced, living in an already difficult situation. Some are displaced for a fifth or sixth time. The COVID-19 pandemic is adding to their plights. Her father taught her that education is the most effective tool to change the world, but she remembers living in a village where many school children were integrated into armed groups. Children are the hope of tomorrow, but armed groups don’t want them to attend Western-style schools. Asking Council members about how they would feel if their children experienced these sufferings, she urged the 15-member organ to ensure the safety of schools. United Nations entities should mobilize international cooperation to address violence against children. She also asked Niger’s Government to mobilize technology resources to give children access to education.
ABDOU ABARRY (Niger), Council President for September, spoke both in his national capacity and on behalf of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa and Tunisia, saying that a lack of access to education for young people in situations of armed conflict is “the barbarity of our time”. He urged the Council to renew its commitment to ensure an appropriate learning environment for all children. He acknowledged important developments at the global level, such as the signing of an action plan between the Central African Republic and the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict aimed at deterring attacks on schools in that country, adding that similar efforts should be repeated elsewhere. He also welcomed efforts by the Government of Mali to implement its commitments under the Safe Schools Declaration as well as in Burkina Faso to promote remote education to youngsters affected by the pandemic.
While the world is striving to adapt education to the pandemic, attention must also be given to ensuring quality education to children who are internally displaced, those living with disabilities and those involved in reintegration programmes, he said. Underscoring the manner in which the vulnerability of girls is compounded by social pressures, he noted that the chances of resuming education diminish when violence forces schools to close. Recalling the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, he said that between April 2017 and December 2019, the number of schools in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger forced to close due to violence rose six-fold, while in the first seven months of 2020, more than 90 attacks on educational institutions have been recorded across the Sahel. He urged States to adopt child protection legislation and policies that take the gender dimension into account and conform to international humanitarian law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They must also respect the civilian nature of schools.
PHILIPPE KRIDELKA (Belgium), welcoming the presidential statement’s reference to impunity, said the whole range of judicial mechanisms must be used to ensure that attacks on children do not go unpunished. As Chair of the working group on children, Belgium spares no effort to uphold Council mandates regarding children in situations of armed conflict, including the listing mechanism, which is a powerful tool that delivers results. He applauded the presidential statement’s request to the Secretary-General to continue to report on the military use of schools in violation of international humanitarian law. The question of child protection, including attacks on schools, should be at the heart of mediation efforts and peacekeeper training, he said, calling also on all States to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the Paris and Vancouver principles.
SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia) stressed the need to continue to improve monitoring and reporting on attacks on education, including by disaggregating data by gender, expressing support for continued dedicated child protection capacity in United Nations missions. Estonia has endorsed the Paris Principles and Paris Commitments, as well as the Vancouver Principles, and joined the group of over 100 countries endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration earlier in 2020. With specific attention needed for children in vulnerable situations, Estonia continues to support access to education and psychosocial services to refugee children in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and East Africa, as well as internally displaced persons in eastern Ukraine. Grave violations against children are unacceptable. But it is also one of the most effective ways the international community can address sources fuelling conflict and violence and ensure peace and security in the long term.
DINH QUY DANG (Viet Nam) said that while immediate actions are urgently needed, it is also vital to address the root causes of attacks against schools in a comprehensive manner, focusing on conflict prevention, mediation and the creation of an environment that protects children’s rights in situations of armed conflicts. As discussed a few days ago, the COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated joint efforts to address conflicts and humanitarian issues. In this regard, it is also important to maintain and galvanize political will and resources to protect children and schools. Calling on parties to armed conflicts to fully respect and abide by international humanitarian law, the Charter of the United Nations and their international obligations, he highlighted key international frameworks, including the Safe School Declaration and the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and urged countries who have not done so to consider joining these frameworks. In that regard, he welcomed the adoption of today’s presidential statement.
CHERITH NORMAN-CHALET (United States) said that safe access to education is critical to breaking the cycles of poverty and social grievance that underpin countries’ vulnerability to violent extremism and future conflict. Therefore, the pursuit of peace and international security cannot be approached without considering the consequences of failures to uphold laws that protect children and schools. Terrorists often target schools because they are critical to building resilient communities and represent Government institutions, she said, adding that malign actors also use education to perpetuate prejudice, intolerance and distort views of history. She highlighted the fact that women and girls are sometimes targeted by groups that oppose gender equity in education. Pointing to the situation in the central Sahel, where nearly 5 million children require assistance, she said that violence prompting school closures in the region must stop immediately, with perpetrators brought to justice and children’s access to education restored. She underscored the United States Government’s life-saving child protection programming and its support for children’s longer-term recovery, including through education, as demonstrated by its recent $2.3 million contribution to Education Cannot Wait’s Burkina Faso First Emergency Response programme.
BERIOSKA ILUMINADA MORRISON GONZÁLEZ (Dominican Republic) said that without access to education, a whole generation living in conflict will grow up without the skills to support their countries’ economies and political and social development, thus exacerbating the cycle in which children will remain trapped in. The Safe Schools Declaration has produced greater commitment to protecting children in armed conflict and their right to education, but investment in the Sahel region and increased international attention to the ongoing security situation is critically needed. Support and cooperation with international accountability mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court are key to holding the perpetrators of attacks on education accountable. She went on to underscore the importance of training national defence and security forces in international humanitarian and human rights law and for senior child protection expertise to be included in United Nations peacekeeping missions.
GENNADY V. KUZMIN (Russian Federation) said that 15 years ago, the Council unanimously adopted a flagship instrument, resolution 1612 (2005), to protect children, the most vulnerable in armed conflict. Violations have since been continuously monitored by the Council. Expressing hope that the presidential statement adopted today will strengthen the protection of children, he highlighted the importance of respecting universal norms, such as international humanitarian law. The Safe School Declaration is an initiative by a narrow group of countries and does not enjoy universality. The presidential statement unfortunately does not refer to the repatriation of children from conflict zones. Children should not suffer due to terrorists’ activities. In Syria, the task is now to rebuilt schools destroyed by terrorists. In the Sahel, armed groups are targeting civilian objects, including schools, and the situation is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regard, he highlighted the vital role of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel to address the situation.
NATHALIE BROADHURST ESTIVAL (France) welcomed the adoption of the presidential statements as well as the observance of the first International Day to Protect Education from Attack. Attacking schools is a chilling reality today, with a significant number of such incidents recorded in 2019 and 2020. In the Sahel, several thousands of children lost access to schools. The pandemic made the situation worse. Children are exposed to risks such as early labour and marriages. Expressing support for the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, she urged States to endorse the Paris Principles and Paris Commitments, as well as the Safe School Declaration. Education is a priority in her country’s foreign policy. France supports initiatives, including the Global Partnership for Education.
GÜNTER SAUTTER (Germany) recalled that in 2011, his delegation put forward Council resolution 1998 (2011), which put into place important standards and provisions for the protection of schools and hospitals. Despite progress since then, however, attacks and threats of attacks against schools are rising, and in that context today’s presidential statement is timely and right on point. It is deplorable that for many children, schools have become places of horror and grief, he said, adding that in Syria, the regime and the Russian Federation have been bombing civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. He expressed concern about attacks on girls’ schools and universities and about the obstacles that children with disabilities might encounter when schools are forced to close. While today’s presidential statement features several concrete measures to enhance monitoring and reporting, Germany remains concerned about sexual and gender-based violence, some of which has been carried out by State actors in such countries as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said.
ZHANG JUN (China), recalling General Assembly resolution 74/275, which established 9 September as the International Day to Protect Education from Attack, said that the international community must ensure that schools are safe spaces where every child can realize their dreams. Attacks on schools are a violation of international law and a red line that can never be crossed. He called for greater investment in education and for the international community, including relevant United Nations agencies, to help build the educational capacities of countries in conflict. Learning opportunities should be guaranteed, he added, underscoring the potential of digital technology and remote learning to minimize the impact of school closures. He went on to emphasize that the best way to prevent children from being harmed by armed conflict is to resolve and prevent such conflict in the first place. All parties should extend humanitarian assistance to children in conflict and minimize the impact of sanctions on them.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) called for the strengthening of national capacities on child protection, stressing that Governments have the primary role to protect all children and provide their educational needs. His country, with the fourth largest education system in the world, having some 646,000 schools, 3 million teachers and 60 million students, is committed to ensuring accessibility of education in all levels and for all students. Promoting a multi-stakeholder approach is key, with Governments, United Nations agencies and regional organizations and civil society organizations which are equally important in restoring safe access to schools. Protecting schools has been a dire challenge in armed conflict. Children affected by conflict now face heightened vulnerabilities because of the pandemic, with restrictions to mitigate its spread becoming a challenge for educational activities and response to violations against children. He reaffirmed the call for a global ceasefire that may become a critical moment to rebuild schools in conflict situations.
SONIA FARREY (United Kingdom) expressed deep concern at the global increase of attacks on educational facilities, including in Burkina Faso and Mali, and called on all parties to conflict to respect and protect access to basic human rights, including quality education. She emphasized that attacks on schools disproportionately impact girls and are often intended to impede girls’ access to education. Mass school closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated such challenges. She described the United Kingdom’s campaign to achieve 12 years of quality schooling for all girls by 2030, including through its provision of $117 million to Education Cannot Wait, the global fund for education in emergencies, and its endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration and accompanying Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use. She acknowledged that some Member States are concerned that the Declaration and Guidelines are inconsistent with or go beyond existing law, but after a thorough review, the United Kingdom determined that that is not the case. She went on to explain that the United Kingdom armed forces are among the first to have a dedicated policy on human security that integrates the Declaration and relevant Council resolutions. “Protecting education from attack is a strong investment in our collective global future. It is time we take it seriously,” she said.
Mr. KUZMIN (Russian Federation) wondered why Germany’s representative, in his statement, had levelled accusations against Moscow and Damascus. Council members need to comply with the norms of diplomatic politeness, he said, adding that the Government of a sovereign State is not a “regime”. He recalled that the Russian Federation held a special press conference on 16 September 2019 where it refuted, with proof, claims that its military had attacked civilian targets in Syria, including schools. He went on to say that the Russian Federation will continue to comply with its obligations under international humanitarian law and that its armed forces use an effective target verification system that rules out attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Mr. SAUTTER (Germany) said that it is encouraging to hear that the Russian Federation takes its legal obligations seriously, adding that so often in life, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. He added that he had nothing to add, or to take away, from his remarks concerning Syria.