A few weeks ago, I sat in the United Nations Security Council chamber listening to Hadiza, a secondary school student in Niger and a youth ambassador for Save the Children, describe the perils she faces just to get an education. In Hadiza’s hometown, Boko Haram have attacked schools and made the journey to and from them treacherous. Some of her friends have dropped out, while others have disappeared.
Hadiza and I both addressed the Council at an Open Debate to discuss the urgent issue of what can be done to protect students, teachers, and schools during times of war. To mark the occasion, the Security Council issued its first ever Presidential Statement dedicated solely to protecting children’s education from attack.
The statement proposed a number of steps toward better protecting education, including endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment to protect schools during armed conflict. It also expressed particular concern for the Sahel region, where Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), has documented an alarming surge in attacks on schools and school teachers in recent years.
As the senior researcher at GCPEA, where I spend my days analyzing near-daily reports of students and schools under fire, I welcome this attention from the world’s peace and security body. We know the important role of the U.N. Security Council in monitoring, preventing, responding, and holding perpetrators to account for grave violations against children like Hadiza.
Urgent action is needed to ensure that students and teachers can safely attend school or university. Over the past five years, GCPEA found that 11,000 attacks on education have been reported around the world. These attacks include the killing, maiming, raping, and abducting of students and educators at school or along school routes. Such horrific attacks are perpetrated by militaries, other State forces, and armed groups, during armed conflict and similar insecurity.
To address these violations, the Security Council called upon countries to ensure that their armed forces integrate measures to protect schools in their planning and conduct of their operations, including by refraining from using schools for military purposes, such as converting schools into military bases. We know that appropriate planning can practically eliminate the need for armed forces to use schools for military purposes and eliminate the risk of turning them into legitimate targets for enemy attack.
Similarly shrewd, the Council encouraged countries to map where schools have been attacked and where students and teachers have been threatened. This will direct prevention and protection measures to nearby schools, and speed responses following attacks.
The Council’s call upon countries to support distance learning is timely during the COVID-19 pandemic, but remote learning can also facilitate access for children affected by armed conflict, including those whose schools are closed due to attacks or who are displaced by conflict.
The Council also encouraged a regional and sub-regional approach to monitoring attacks, both in the Sahel and more widely, which is critical when perpetrators operate across national borders. Adapting the monitoring and reporting of these violations to the geopolitical realities of conflict can improve regional response to these attacks and support accountability.
These ground-breaking recommendations by the Council are based on examples of good practice from around the world. So, encouraging the U.N. secretary-general to report back on examples of lessons learned in protecting schools from attack, as the Council did in its statement, has the potential to lead to further positive results.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the Security Council set forth these practical steps for protecting education. After all, the majority of its members have already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration. In fact, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines became the 105th country to join the declaration last month.
Now, States should build on this momentum to enact more expansive and concrete measures to protect education from attack at all educational levels and ensure that students like Hadiza can learn safely.
I hope the Security Council’s next step will be a dedicated resolution to consolidate and strengthen protections for students, teachers, schools, and universities in armed conflict, which will expand on the Council’s Resolution 1998 (2011) on the protection of children in armed conflict.
Based on GCPEA’s research, one noticeable gap that needs to be filled in a future U.N. Security Council resolution is the protection of higher education students and educators, and their institutions. Over the past five years, 9,100 university students and staff were harmed in attacks and over 300 university facilities were damaged, destroyed, or threatened.
Another positive development evident in our research is that in recent years we have seen no use of schools by U.N. peacekeepers in their operations, likely due to the U.N. banning the practice. The Security Council could build on this, and encourage all regional peacekeepers, such as African Union forces, to adopt a similar ban.
Finally, the Security Council should follow the lead of the majority of the world’s nations, and urge remaining countries to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. The United Kingdom did an exemplary job of this during the September 10 Open Debate on Children and Armed Conflict when their representative shared conclusions from a U.K. legal review, which found that the Declaration complements international humanitarian and human rights law.
The Security Council should harness this current momentum and pass a resolution on attacks on schools as soon as possible. Students like Hadiza, and their teachers, schools, and universities, simply cannot wait.