Statement by Ms. Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Arria Formula Meeting on the issue of attacks on schools.
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Excellencies, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank the Permanent Mission of Italy and its partners, the Permanent Missions of France, Sweden and Uruguay, for organizing this important event. At this time, I also wish to recognize UNICEF, DPKO, DPA and the many NGOs that support us in our monitoring and reporting work, in particular I wish to acknowledge Human Rights Watch and the excellent panel they held on this issue yesterday. Without their efforts we would not have such a clear picture of what is happening on the ground. Without their advocacy, raising awareness on grave violations against children in situations of conflict simply would not be possible.
I am also honoured to be here today with Ms. Joy Bishara and Ms. Zama Neff to discuss and share information and identify ways in which we can help stop attacks against schools and protect children’s rights to education, even in the harshest of circumstances.
As you know, the Children and Armed Conflict mandates task my office to monitor and report on six grave violations. In 2011, by adopting resolution 1998, the Security Council gave the United Nations a mandate to identify and list, in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual report, armed forces and groups who attack schools or hospitals, and protected persons who work there. This resolution was deepened through Resolution 2143 of 2014 on military use of schools ,and is also an issue included in the SC sanctions committees criteria.
The resolution asked listed parties to conflict to work with the United Nations to prepare concrete, time-bound action plans to end and prevent these violations.
Monitoring, reporting, listing and negotiating actions plans are crucial to help ensure that children can enjoy their rights to education and health. It is also a vital tool to end impunity in relation to those that commit these grave violations. Further, my office has also spearheaded efforts regarding the protection of schools through the development of a Guidance Note on Attacks against Schools and Hospitals, with an aim to strengthen our collective capacity to monitor and report incidents affecting children’s right to health and education in situations of conflict. At this time, we are also enhancing our advocacy and dialogue with perpetrators to put a stop to these violations.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the most recent SG report on CAAC, attacks on schools and hospitals was one of the most disturbing trends documented in 2016, with 753 incidents verified, and occurring in almost all of the countries on the children and armed conflict agenda. It is worth noting that these numbers include only the incidents that the UN was able to verify, as access is often not granted to conflict areas or there are safety concerns for the staff, so we know that the actual numbers are much higher.
Just in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 174 attacks on schools were verified between April and June 2017. The majority of schools were destroyed, looted or burnt down by the Kamuina Nsapu militia in the Kasai region.
These attacks can be carried out by ground forces, but wreaking destruction can also come from air strikes. In 2016, in Yemen three-quarters and in the Syrian Arab Republic two-thirds of all attacks on schools and hospitals were carried out by air strikes.
Beyond this physical destruction of education and health infrastructure, armed forces and groups have been occupying and using schools for military purposes, for training or recruiting campaigns – thus violating the sanctity of schools and turning them from safe havens into targets of attacks for occupation purposes. This not only disrupts much needed education for children, but often the departing forces leave the premises unusable —which disrupts education for months, years and sometimes decades to come. In addition, in almost every situation where schools are militarized, children say that they are afraid to return to school for fear of being harmed, abducted, recruited, or raped.
In Somalia, Al-Shabaab compelled children to attend madrassas managed by the group and reportedly attempted to train them as soldiers. In several instances, elders, imams and madrassa teachers who refused to hand over their children to the group were abducted, threatened, physically harmed and/or killed.
In recent years, a new pattern of attacks on school children, teachers and education facilities has also emerged. This happens because schools may be attacked by armed groups because of their curriculum content or because they are seen as a symbol of the state. Children, especially girls, and their parents, are threatened and killed in an effort to stop the educational, social or economic progress of girls.
As you all know—and as we have come here today to hear from Joy—the attacks perpetrated against children and schools by Boko Haram, whose ideology is constructed against what they refer to as ‘western education’—are some of the most brutal. In north-eastern Nigeria 1,500 schools were destroyed by Boko Haram since 2014, resulting in at least 1,280 casualties, mostly of students and teachers. In Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria and elsewhere, children have been used as ‘human bombs’- dressed in school uniforms- to harm their fellow pupils, schools have been burned down and others transformed into makeshift sites for child recruitment. The terrorisation of these communities has led to school closures, the flight of teachers and the withdrawal of children from school by frightened parents.
In Afghanistan, girls’ education remains also a direct target. For instance, in one verified incident in April 2016, the Taliban forced 28 school principals and one teacher to attend a meeting where they demanded a change of the curriculum and stated that no girls over 11 years of age should attend school. This incident resulted in constant threats on students who lived in fear of being abducted or harmed while attending school. Similar threats against female teachers or girls were received in Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Syrian Arab Republic.
Mali’s situation is unique in that attacks on infrastructure usually follow direct threats against education personnel. The myriad threats range from direct intimidation, orders to close and never reopen secular schools, and prohibition of mixing genders in class. Radical groups now storm villages of entire communities, threatening the population and setting fire to school buildings, premises, school books, table benches and even a few residences and houses owned by education personnel. This erodes not just education but also the fabric of communities. The short- and long-term impacts of these attacks on education and community are devastating.
Immediate effects can include death, injury and the destruction of educational facilities, together with disrupted access to education and the undermining of communal common purpose. In the longer term, these attacks weaken educational systems, lead to a loss of teachers, and contribute to other grave violations against children including recruitment and use, rape and sexual violence and abductions.
Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Attacking schools not only deprives children of an education; it robs them of a future. It can take decades to reinstall skilled teachers and build the physical infrastructure to provide a proper education for all. It will take time for children and their parents to consider schools a safe environment for personal and communal growth to happen. A generation lost to education is unable to produce self- sufficient individuals or contribute to the economic, political and social development of entire communities.
Children affected by armed conflict—both in country and those displaced—cannot and must not be excluded from the right of education. Education must remain a priority during periods of conflict as much as during times of stability to ensure their best chance for a safe and peaceful future. Emergency education options also can give a sense of normalcy for traumatized children, whether they are still in their home town or in a refugee or migrant camp.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In my report, I urge all parties to conflict to refrain from actions that impede children’s access to education. The Security Council has an important role in condemning and taking measure against those who don’t heed this call. Without strong backing from this body to protect education in conflict, we cannot possibly hope to realize goal 4 of the SDGs; quality education for all.
I call particularly upon Member States to make every effort to protect education in situations of armed conflict, including through the adoption of measures to deter the military use of schools and ensure that military operations do not target schools or result in school attacks. I wish to reiterate today that Member States that have not already done so, should endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. It has made an essential contribution towards promoting tangible measures to prevent attacks on education. In Afghanistan for instance, where the Government endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, the Ministry of Education promulgated two directives in 2016 instructing Government security forces to refrain from using schools.
In response to attacks on schools and the abduction of children, the Government of Nigeria also launched the Safe Schools Initiative, aimed at providing education and piloting safe education facilities in the three conflict-affected States. Nigeria endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration in May 2015, by which it committed to implement the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.
Additional measures can be taken in countries affected by armed conflict to guarantee children’s access to education. Where schools have been destroyed or children are unable to attend classes due to the security situation, alternative means of education, including community based or remote solutions should be supported.
Further, whenever reparation programmes are elaborated following armed conflicts, provisions regarding the reconstruction of schools should be included. Moreover, where children have experienced substantive gaps in their education, accelerated learning programmes, as those that have been put in place in Mosul, Iraq, following the liberation of the city, can facilitate children’s re-entry into the formal education system.
All of us here know that education is an absolute necessity, not just for the children themselves but also for global peace, stability and prosperity for all. I can assure participants here today that my Office will strongly advocate, with all parties to conflict who are willing to listen, that schools should be treated as sanctuaries and that it is our common responsibility to ensure that every child has access to an education, even at times of conflict.