posted on Wed 9 Sep 2020 9:05 PM
Children and Armed Conflict: Open Debate and Adoption of a Presidential Statement on Attacks Against Schools

Tomorrow (10 September), Security Council members will convene for an open debate on “Children and Armed Conflict: Attacks against Schools as a Grave Violation of Children’s Rights”, which will focus on the Sahel region. The meeting will coincide with the first International Day to Protect Education from Attack, which took place today (9 September) as called for by General Assembly resolution 74/275 adopted on 12 May.

The expected briefers are Virginia Gamba, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict; Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF; and Marika Tsolakis, a representative from the Global Coalition for the Protection of Education from Attack (GCPEA). Council members will also be briefed by two young civil society briefers from Niger: Rimana Mayaki, the president of the Children’s Parliament of Niger and Hadiza—who is addressed only by her first name for safety reasons—and is a member of an organisation that promotes education in conflict zones. While the interventions of the briefers and Council members will be broadcast live, non-Council member states will have the opportunity to submit their statements in writing, to be circulated subsequently in a Council document.

During the meeting, the Council is expected to adopt a presidential statement on attacks against schools, which was co-authored by Niger and Belgium. While the open meeting will focus on the Sahel region, the presidential statement will address the issue of attacks against schools globally.

The Open Debate

Attacks against schools—the focus of tomorrow’s meeting—constitute one of the six grave violations included in the UN-led Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) for violations against children established by resolution 1612 in 2005. In resolution 1998 adopted in 2011, the Council designated these attacks as a grave violation that could trigger a listing of parties in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict.

According to the concept note prepared by Niger ahead of the meeting, tomorrow’s open debate serves as an opportunity to take stock of the implementation of resolution 1998 and subsequent relevant resolutions, which highlighted the need to protect schools, children, teachers and other protected persons in relation to schools from attacks or threats of attacks and to ensure the fulfilment of children’s right to education. The concept note states that despite the progress made since 2011 in the protection of schools, attacks and threats of attacks against schools continue to grow at an alarming rate. During the meeting, particular attention will be given to the Sahel region, which has been witnessing a heightened level of attacks against schools by terrorist and non-state armed groups.

The Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict, issued on 9 June, noted that the UN verified 494 attacks on schools and 433 attacks on hospitals in 2019. It said that the highest numbers of verified attacks on schools and hospitals were in the Syrian Arab Republic, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Afghanistan, and Somalia, noting that such attacks by state actors had nearly doubled globally. According to the concept note, the access to education of 75 million children and young people was disrupted by conflict and insecurity in 35 crisis-affected countries in the past year.

In the Sahel region, security crises had a grave impact on children’s right to education in 2019. According to UNICEF, by the end of the year violence had caused more than 3,300 schools in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to close or become non-operational, affecting 650,000 children and 16,000 teachers. The number of school closures in 2019 represented a six-fold increase since April 2017.

Tomorrow’s meeting will provide a platform for member states to discuss means to protect schools and facilitate equal access to education for children affected by armed conflict. Members are encouraged to share lessons learned and best practices for addressing attacks against schools and strengthening national, regional and international efforts in this regard. Questions posed in the concept note include:

  • How can member states and the Security Council put in place and/or strengthen measures to ensure the systematic and effective implementation of resolution 1998 and related resolutions?
  • How can relevant UN entities and regional organisations better support member states to prevent and stem attacks against schools?
  • What measures can to taken to better support the MRM and address preexisting and nascent challenges in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? What more can be done to facilitate a more comprehensive gathering of information on attacks and threats of attacks against schools?

At tomorrow’s meeting, the briefers are likely to describe the negative trends in attacks against schools, while highlighting the increased challenges to children’s right to education posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gamba may highlight the disproportionate effect that the pandemic has had on children, especially those in armed conflict situations. A UN policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on education, issued on 5 August, noted that the worldwide school closures caused by the pandemic have compounded existing challenges to children’s access to education in areas such as the Sahel, where the security situation had already created difficulties.

Fore might elaborate on the threats posed to children in armed conflict situations due to school closures, whether due to attacks or the COVID-19 pandemic. She may note that many children are in danger of not returning to school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the risks associated with children being out of school in armed conflict contexts, including their vulnerability to exploitation and forced recruitment into armed groups.

The briefers may also discuss measures that member states could take to protect children’s access to education, including through the adoption of normative frameworks such as the Safe Schools Declaration. The declaration is a voluntary political commitment from governments not to use schools for military purposes and to protect them during military operations, which was developed by Argentina and Norway and opened for endorsement in 2015. As of 2020, 104 states had endorsed the declaration. While many view the declaration as a possibly useful tool in obtaining greater government commitment to protecting children and their right to education, several Council members—including China, Russia and the US—have not endorsed it.

The civil society representatives from Niger are likely to describe their first-hand experiences and their activities to promote children’s rights to education. Hadiza, who has experienced attacks against schools in her town, may describe her efforts to promote education in conflict zones, especially with regard to facilitating the continuation of education for girls. Mayaki may discuss the nationwide campaigns on child rights that she has promoted in her capacity as president of the Children’s Parliament of Niger.

Council members are expected to highlight the importance of ensuring children’s right to education and discuss measures they have adopted nationally and through their involvement in regional organisations to protect schools from attack. Council members who have endorsed the Safe School Declaration may share their views on how this could be a way forward for governments striving to take steps to prevent attacks on education. They may repeat the call contained in resolution 2532 for a global ceasefire while calling on armed groups to avoid carrying out attacks against schools.

Some members of the Council, including African and European members, may highlight the increased risk faced by girls in conflict situations—including in the Sahel region– as some armed groups specifically target female students inside their schools or while travelling to, and from, school. They may also note that school closures can have an especially severe effect on girls, potentially increasing their vulnerability to forced marriage, early pregnancy and gender-based violence—all of which may prevent them from continuing their education in the future.

Presidential Statement on Attacks Against Schools

The draft presidential statement expected to be adopted during tomorrow’s meeting reaffirms the right to education and its contribution to peace and security while condemning the significant increase in attacks against schools in recent years. It expresses concern at the military use of schools and encourages member states to adopt measures to prevent the use of schools by armed groups. Security Council members are further expected to call on member states to rehabilitate schools that have experienced attacks and to restore children’s right to education while calling on UNICEF and other UN entities to provide assistance in this regard upon request.

The text of the draft presidential statement contains several elements which have not been covered in previous Council products on attacks against schools or on children in armed conflict, including on the gender aspects of attacks against schools, the impact of COVID-19 on the right to education, and the need for enhanced monitoring of violations against children in a regional context. In this regard, the draft expresses concern regarding cross-border violations and abuses against children affected by armed conflict. It also welcomes the UN’s enhanced monitoring and reporting on the impact of regional and subregional dynamics of armed conflict on children in the Lake Chad Basin and encourages a similar approach for reporting on other regions, including the Sahel region.

Negotiations on the draft presidential statement do not appear to have been difficult.  The co-authors presented a first draft of the text on 20 August and proceeded to engage with other Council members bilaterally. It appears that during the negotiations, some of the Council members that were not signatories to the Safe Schools Declaration expressed concerns with references to it. However, compromise was reached, with the final text of the presidential statement taking note of efforts aimed at facilitating continuation of education in armed conflict, including those of member states that are signatories to the Safe Schools Declaration. As such, the draft presidential statement is the first Council product explicitly to reference the declaration. It also appears that some Council members were opposed to having a specific linkage between attacks on school and gender. While references to the impact of attacks on education on girls were retained, other language on issues such as abductions of girls or conflict-related sexual violence were not included in the final draft text.