United Nations Must Protect Schools in Conflict Zones
In March, I was lucky enough to meet a truly exceptional young inventor called Salah. At just 11 years old, he has already created some incredible solar-powered engines and mechanical tools.
Salah is also a refugee. His family fled from war and conflict. They saw untold horrors and were left with nothing. Displaced, Salah missed out on years of schooling.
I met him at the “alternative learning center” he attends just outside Khartoum in Sudan. The center, which is supported by Education Above All and UNICEF, helps pupils who have missed out on years of schooling due to conflict.
As I admired his inventions, I noticed that next to them was a model of a house. It looked a little out of place next to the cars, so I asked him about it. His answer astounded me, because he gave it with total absolute certainty: “This is the home I will build for my family one day.”
Despite the unimaginable challenges he has faced, Salah can now live, dream, invent and plan a future he may not otherwise have had. Without doubt, education has transformed his life.
Tragically, millions of children around the world are not able to reach their potential, often because of conflict. One quarter of all the world’s school-aged children — about 462 million young people, according to UNICEF — live in countries devastated by conflict. Last month, the Overseas Development Institute reported that more than one in five school-age children living in war zones is missing out on schooling.
In most of these conflicts, schools, teachers and students are victims of targeted attacks. From Afghanistan to Colombia, the Philippines, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, there have been a series of attacks on schools in at least 21 countries experiencing armed conflict since 2013.
Education facilities are bombed, burned and destroyed. Schools are taken over and used as military bases. Children are recruited as soldiers. Students and teachers have been kidnapped or even murdered. Millions of children have no safe place to go. Their future is uncertain.
Quality education is the key to building peace and making development sustainable. Yet alarming levels of conflict and humanitarian crisis around the world are endangering not only the United Nation’s global development goals, but also the credibility of the international order that the U.N. represents.
The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) is the body charged by the U.N. Charter to ensure international peace and security. Yet this key institution is broken exactly where it is needed most: to hold those who commit mass atrocities and grave violations of international law to account.
Time after time, members of the UNSC do not use their power of veto responsibly. Perpetrators are not held to account for their actions and opportunities to prevent conflict and establish peace are lost.
Take the October attack on a school in Idlib, Syria, that left 21 children dead and many others wounded. An educational complex was targeted. It included a kindergarten, an elementary school, two middle schools and a secondary school. A senior U.N. official described it as a possible war crime. Yet the U.N. Security Council failed to unite and condemn this atrocity, meaning that there have been no consequences for the perpetrators.
The world watches through broken windows, as the big players continue their deadly card game of geopolitics — recklessly gambling away lives, changing the rules with every round, flipping and shuffling their cards to suit their strategic interests, with apparent disregard for the fires raging outside.
But this is not a game for the grieving parents of Idlib. Nor for the girls still being held captive by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Nor for the millions of children around the world in refugee camps, robbed of their chance to learn.
Until government armed forces and non-state armed groups are held accountable for attacking schools, the violations and the violence will not stop. To make children safe as they learn, all states must adhere to the international laws and resolutions that protect education and the rights of children. Justice and security alone will not bring education to the millions of children who need it.
Quality education is well known to strengthen economies and improve health outcomes. It also makes an important contribution to conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery for communities.
Those delivering the world aid development budgets should recognize the long-term value of investing in secure, quality education. They should acknowledge the potential of education to prevent and heal conflict as well as build resilience within communities.
Today, at The Hague Institute for Global Justice, we are bringing together international leaders and grassroots activists who are committed to protecting children and to building a stronger system of global governance. It is a first step on a roadmap aimed at strengthening international law and bringing to justice those responsible for attacks on children, schools and teachers.
We are calling for bold leadership to give education a chance to break the cycle of violence. The G20 meeting in July 2017 is an opportunity for world leaders to demonstrate that they are accountable and responsible. They must renew their commitment to education as the key to delivering the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals.
We call on powerful nations to put down their cards and end their deadly games.