Accountability best defence for deterring attacks on schools: Leila Zerrougui

Speaks at forum discussing Right to Education in Emergencies

Leila Zerrougui highlighted key strategies aimed at protecting schools, students and teachers as she spoke at a high level event focused on upholding the right to education during emergencies, including armed conflict.

Central to the process is holding government armed forces and non-State armed groups accountable when they target schools, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Children and Armed Conflict told the “Right to Education in Emergencies” gathering at United Nations Headquarters in New York.

But prevention also needs to figure in the overall strategy, and this includes documenting violations and identifying perpetrators, she said. It additionally involves deterring military use of schools – which she called a “major issue” because it not only forces out teachers and students, but can mean schools “become a target” of an opposing party to conflict.

“It’s very clear that (deliberately) attacking schools is a war crime,” the Special Representative said. But when it’s also clear perpetrators will be prosecuted, many will “think twice” before targeting schools, she added.

SRSG Zerrougui spoke at the event last week as a member of a blue-ribbon panel invited by co-sponsors Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Norway, Portugal, Qatar and the Education Above All Foundation to highlight the need to include the issue of children’s educational rights during emergencies in the post-2015 development agenda of the United Nations.

The panel’s input complemented contributions by a host of international dignitaries, among them former United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose current work on advancing education rights includes his service as United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, serving as moderator, raised the question of how to protect schoolchildren once armed conflict erupts.

SRSG Zerrougui spoke of the need to “protect whatever we can” since the consequences for education are often long term.

“When you have schools that are destroyed, it is not just about today it’s about the future,” she said, since teachers and other staff may have left the area or even been killed, and resources to re-build and refurbish schools are often scarce,

She acknowledged the frequent difficulty of holding armed forces or groups accountable as hostilities unfold, but stressed how that meant documenting violations was all the more important.

“Even if you cannot achieve accountability today, we must allow people to know what is happening who is doing what,” SRSG Zerrougui said.

Mandate and resolutions

The United Nations Security Council, building on the General Assembly mandate that created the Office of the SRSG, has adopted resolutions requesting the monitoring and reporting of six violations that disproportionately affect children in time of conflict.

Attacks on schools and hospitals collectively constitute one of the six, while another is recruitment and use of children, which SRSG Zerrougui said can also take place when armed forces or groups are active in or near a school.

Efforts are made to engage parties that are listed in the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict – to encourage them to “take precautionary measures to correct their policy (and their) rules of engagement,” SRSG Zerrougui told the high-level gathering.

Of course, there may be little hope of convincing certain extremist non-State armed groups to change their ways, SRSG Zerrougui said. But she added that progress can be made with Governments as well as with non-State armed groups that “have an interest in giving a good image, in sitting at the table of negotiation.”

The Special Representative said key is to ensure peace processes include as “part of a package” the issues of child rights, education, protecting schools and – since “schools are also a place where children are recruited” – recruitment and use.

“This must be part of our advocacy with those who are interested in having a future,” she added, saying she was “pushing hard” on those fronts.

In a collective push to enhance monitoring and prevent military use of schools, the Office of the SRSG produced a comprehensive guidance booklet, “Protect Schools and Hospitals”, with UNICEF, the World Health Organization and UNESCO.

SRSG Zerrougui also said she had welcomed an initiative ­- launched by the inter-agency Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack – to promote international standards to protect schools and universities from military use during armed conflict.

The initiative led to the development of the Safe Schools Declaration, which Governments are encouraged to sign to signal their commitment to meet standards contained in the initiative’s Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.

“We are asking Governments to join it – even if it is not mandatory,” SRSG Zerrougui said.