On 9 September, the world observed the first International Day to Protect Education from Attack that was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly last May. Global leaders and celebrities from all walks of life stepped up support for actions against attacks on education during the commemorative high-level virtual event organized by the State of Qatar, UNESCO, UNICEF and Education Above All Foundation.
Held amidst the COVID-19 pandemic that led to a historic disruption of education with 1.6 billion learners affected, the observance highlighted the plight of children and youth in under-resourced communities and in conflict zones as well as the exacerbation of structural inequalities in and beyond education. World celebrities, government officials, and youth championed the cause of safe schools for children and youth, as they raised their voices to amplify the importance of access to quality education for all girls and boys in humanitarian emergencies. They stressed that schools are essential in providing life-saving safe spaces, psychological and other support services as well as skills development.
Kicking off the gathering, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, UN Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, made a powerful call to world leaders to take’ real steps toward change’ as she stressed that ‘it is quicker to destroy a school than to build one”. She further reiterated that ‘protection of education must be reflected and embodied by action on the ground’ through ‘effective mechanisms that will enable us to end impunity for perpetrators of attacks”. Stressing that ‘protecting the lives, education and future of children is a responsibility that the international commute cannot afford to ignore”, she concluded that ‘in these times, our humanity is tested’.
Endorsing the call to strengthen the protection of education worldwide, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, expressed serious concern as attacks on education have been on the rise with ‘some 11,000 reported incidents” in the past four years. He urged Member States to honour their commitments under existing international agreements that prohibit attacks on the right to education. Drawing attention to the endorsement and implementation of the Safe Schools Declaration, he welcomed efforts t to ensure the provision of education for all, even in times of conflict, and particularly for the most vulnerable. “We must use the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to build a better world. As we work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals over the coming decade, we must ensure no one is left behind”, urged the UN chief.
UNESCO has been at the forefront of the global efforts to address the historic disruption of education due to COVID 19 pandemic, in particular with the creation of the Global Education Coalition. Ms Stefania Gianinni, UNESCO Assistant Director-General, reiterated the Organization’s firm commitment to ‘build wholesome and resilient education systems’ including through the use of ‘technology as a viable and robust solution to ensure continuity of learning when learners cannot access education in schools’. She mentioned the support to Ministries of Education “to set up distance learning solutions leveraging hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech approaches’ and in ‘developing policies to prevent and address the impact of COVID-19 on education in crisis and conflict settings’. Finally, she urged all actors ‘to strengthen education financing and remain united in the quest to protect education from attack’.
The education champion, H.E. Mr. Tijjani Muhammad Bande, President of the 74th Session of the General Assembly, underscored that equal access to quality education has been the overarching priority of the 74th session of the General Assembly. “In adopting resolution 74/275 to establish the International Day to Protect Education from Attack, the entire membership of the General Assembly upheld the values underpinning the Charter of the United Nations while working remotely to mitigate the spread of COVID-19”, said Mr. Bande. He called on all Member States who have not already done so, to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration. “We must provide flexible and accelerated funding to ensure continuity of education. Let this inaugural International Day to Protect Education from Attack be the catalyst for progress as we strive together to deliver for all”, Mr. Bande concluded.
Reaffirming Belgium’s commitment to protecting education from attack, H.E. Mr. Philippe Goffin, Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Defense of the Kingdom of Belgium, underscored that the fight against impunity is a cornerstone of Belgium’s foreign policy and that the Belgian presidency of the United Nations Security Council Working Group on the Children and Armed Conflict is fully in line with this commitment. He also expressed full support to the presidential statement that Niger will present at the open videoconference debate on “attacks against schools: a grave violation of children’s rights” at the Security Council on 10 September. “Resolute action and sustained political pressured are indispensable. Belgium remains committed”, asserted Mr. Goffin.
Ms. Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, highlighted multiple initiatives that UNICEF has sponsored to provide mental, sanitation and hygiene support to children affected by armed conflicts and urged all countries to step up distance learning through programs like GIGA and Generation Unlimited to ensure education opportunities delivered to all children.
Joining the observance of the first international day prominent education advocates from Member States, UN agencies, the private sector and creative industries added their meaningful voice to #UniteToProtect campaign. Those included H.E. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh; Ms. Fatou Bensouda, Chief Prosecutor of International Criminal Court; Mr. Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Ms. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Dr. Koumba Holy Barry, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education; Mr. Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel Peace Prize Winner; Ms. Tawakkol Karman, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Yemen Activist; world-renowned singer Shakira Mebarak, and last but not least, Mr. Forest Whitaker, UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and United Nations SDG Advocate who alerted that “education cannot be taken for granted”.