SRSG Zerrougui’s Briefing at the Open Session of the African Union Peace and Security Council

Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, May 20, 2016
Addis Ababa
10 May 2016

Madame La Présidente, Membres du Conseil

Excellences Messieurs le Commissaire à la Paix et à la Sécurité, le Commissaire aux Affaires Sociales, le Président du Comité des Experts, Madame l’Envoyée Spéciale de l’Union Africaine pour les femmes, la paix et la sécurité, Madame la Directrice Régionale de l’UNICEF pour l’Afrique de l’Est et du Sud, Excellences, mesdames et messieurs,

C’est un privilège  et un honneur d’être ici aujourd’hui. J’aimerais commencer par remercier son Excellence Madame l’Ambassadeur du Botswana pour l’initiative de tenir cette session et pour l’invitation.

Madam President, Members of the Council,

Your decision to hold an annual session dedicated entirely to the protection of children affected by armed conflict is a landmark development demonstrating the importance you attach to this agenda and to the protection of Africa’s children. I am particularly pleased that the partnership between my Office and the Department of Peace and Security of the African Union continues to be strengthened in the interest of our common goal.

Africa is the world’s most youthful continent and over the next 35 years Africa’s under-18 population will increase by two thirds, reaching almost 1 billion by mid-century. They are and will be the driving force behind the economic growth and the sustainable development of the continent. Quality education is an important determinant of this growth and it is thus in our interest to protect and advance it.

Focusing this third joint Open Session on the protection of schools from attacks during armed conflicts in Africa is thus very timely and will allow us to take stoke of what has been achieved so far. It also provides us with an opportunity to emphasize areas where more progress is needed and to raise awareness amongst Member States.

Despite great progress in the last few years, access to education remains a rare commodity in too many countries, including in Africa. We cannot sacrifice this progress and must prioritise the provision of education, especially in times of conflict where schools and teachers play a crucial role in providing children with a degree of normality and protection when they need it most.

Madam President, Members of the Council,

In the context of already fragile education systems, targeted attacks on schools, associated staff and children have become a common aspect of today’s conflicts. Teachers are threatened and killed by armed groups because of their work and children, especially girls, are targeted for pursuing their right to education. Armed groups might see education as a symbol of the state and try, by attacking it, to undermine confidence in the government or they might simply be hostile to the content of the curriculum. The Ex-Séléka coalition and associated armed groups, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the Front de résistance patriotique en Ituri (FRPI) and Boko Haram have thus been listed in the annexes of the last annual report of the UN Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict as parties that engage in attacks on schools.

Moreover, schools in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and in Sudan, have been looted, pillaged, damaged and destroyed during military operations, including through indiscriminate attacks, ground shelling and aerial bombardments, depriving millions of children of their fundamental right to education, putting the future of an entire generation at risk.

The militarization of education institutions also has devastating effects. The use of schools for military purposes be it by government forces, non-state armed groups or peacekeeping forces, erodes their sanctity as safe spaces, and compromises their civilian status, thus exposing schools, teachers and students to attack. Access to education is already a scarce commodity and occupying a school comes at such a high price that it can never be justified. Governments, who have the primary responsibility to protect their children, especially in times of war, should never provide armed groups with a reason to attack schools because they have transformed them into a military objective. States must lead by example.

The militarization of schools or the proximity of armed actors to school environments leaves children vulnerable to other grave violations. For example, when used as barracks, or training grounds, or even as weapons stores, the facilities are often contaminated with unexploded ordnances. In almost every situation where schools are militarized, children say that they are afraid to return to school as they fear being harmed, abducted, recruited, or raped.

The repercussions of attacks against schools and of their military use can be long lasting. If not shot down entirely, classes may be suspended for days, weeks or even longer. It takes a lot of resources to rebuild or repair the physical infrastructure, refurbish the building, and reinstall skilled teachers required to restore education. This is especially true in hard to reach rural areas where community schools are the only accessible sites of education for many children. These are investments that put a heavy burden on communities and that conflict and post-conflict societies can seldom afford.

Madam President, Members of the Council,

I am pleased to see that the international community has put the protection of schools firmly on its agenda. Attacks against schools are one of the six grave violations that have been identified both in the 1996 report of Graça Machel and in the first Security Council Resolution on Children and Armed Conflict 1261 (1999) and are since then covered by my mandate.

In 2011, the UNSC adopted resolution 1998 which included this violation as a trigger for listing of parties to conflict in the annexes of the Secretary general annual report and called for greater action to ensure that schools and hospitals have no part in warfare.

UN Security Council resolution 2143 and 2225 expressed deep concern at the military use of schools and subsequently called on Member States to consider “concrete measures” to deter this practice.

To sustain all of these efforts and implement Security Council resolution 1998, my Office, together with UN partners, elaborated a guidance note to facilitate and strengthen monitoring and reporting of attacks on schools and hospitals by partners in the field. The guidance note provides key definitions and practical advice; it is also a tool that promotes advocacy and dialogue with parties to conflict and aims to increase partnerships between various stakeholders for the implementation of Security Council resolution 1998 in relation to monitoring and reporting.

With the publication in December 2014 of the “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict” – otherwise known as the “Safe Schools Guidelines” –Governments now have a voluntary framework for achieving that aim. I commend the 15 African countries that have already endorsed these Guidelines, including the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan, that are themselves affected by armed conflict, and call on other Member States to also sign the Guidelines without delay

In September 2015, Governments around the world agreed under Goal 4 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ensure by 2030 equal access to all levels of education including for children in vulnerable situations. The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul end of this month will be another opportunity for world leaders to produce commitments and concrete actions towards the prioritization of education for children affected by conflict.

I commend the engagement of the African Union in this fight. The decision to dedicate this third joint Open Session to the protection of education in armed conflict demonstrates the political will and the commitment to ensuring access to education for all children in Africa. Let me also welcome that the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (2015-2025) adopted by African Union Heads of State and Government during their Twenty-Sixth Ordinary Session on 31 January 2016 restates that “Protecting the schools and universities from attacks and preserving them from military use is vital in order to ensure the continuation of education during war and in post conflict situation”. I count on your support to also push for this goal in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and during the World Humanitarian Summit.

Madam President, Members of the Council,

We have a strong frame-work, we have tools and we have political momentum. But efforts must be generalised and words and commitments must be followed by concrete and firm actions. This is where the African Union and its Member states can and must make a difference. Member States should include measures to end and prevent attacks against schools in domestic legislation, including criminalization of these acts, and must held perpetrators accountable. Accountability is a key aspect of prevention. Rules of engagement must include preventative measures to avoid attacks in populated areas. International humanitarian law, especially the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, must be fully respected at all times. Moreover, the military use of schools should be prevented by issuing military orders and including its prohibition in military manuals and doctrine. These provisions should also be included in military training of national armies and in the pre-deployment training of forces deployed outside of their country.

The African Union’s increasing role in maintaining peace and security on the continent not only brings to the forefront a wide range of child protection challenges, it also provides an opportunity to ensure that children’s rights are upheld during conflict. Provisions to prevent attacks against schools as well as the use of schools should thus be included in the operational and tactical response by African Union –led peace operations. The standing orders issued by the MINUSCA Force Commander and Police Commissioner to their forces not to use schools during the conduct of their activities are an example that could be replicated at the level of African Union led peace operations.

Madam President, Members of the Council, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am here today to reiterate my support to the African Union, to strengthen ties with the Council, the Commission and the Committee of Expert.

An attack on a school is not only an attack on a child’s future, but an attack on a country’s and a continent’s development. As in the words of the boy who had been abducted at the age of 12 from his school in Somalia by al-Shabaab: “Lack of education is a lack of light. It’s darkness.”

Thank you Madam President for inviting me to brief this Council, I count on your support to realize our collective commitments to protect African children. It is my strong belief that together we can build a secure and prosperous future for our children.