NEW YORK – On Wednesday, March 25, in a poignant and defining moment, an elite group of the world’s diplomats, sitting around the large, circular table at the United Nations Security Council, will be asked to listen and understand the cries of the world’s most vulnerable children. If they absorb a fraction of what they are told, they will then act.
There will be little to debate or argue about. Absolutely nothing will be lost in translation. What they hear will be the same – and equally harrowing – in all languages.
The men and women of the Security Council will be told about the plight of the silent, forgotten, most at-risk victims of the world’s major conflicts – almost 30 million displaced out-of-school girls and boys. And the stories they will hear will sound more reminiscent of the Dark Ages than 2015.
They will then be asked to take decisive action on child rape in Iraq, the bombing of schools in Syria, the abduction of girls in Nigeria, the abduction of boys as child soldiers in South Sudan, and thousands of children trafficked into forced marriage and slave labor from the world’s conflict zones.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1612, which established – as one of the many results of a landmark report by the world’s foremost children’s rights campaigner, Graca Machel – the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict and a monitoring and reporting mechanism for grave violations against children in armed conflict. As a result of her recommendations, and from her own experience of Mozambique's liberation war and her study of conflicts around the world, the group reviews reports on the recruitment and use of child soldiers and other violations and abuses committed against children.
Not since World War II have so many children become refugees across so many borders. Never outside the context of world wars have schools in so many countries been subject to so many terror attacks – 10,000 in only five years. And never have so many children – half of today’s 58 million out of school – been denied their basic right to education because they are trapped in conflict zones, displaced and condemned to nomadic lives, or in refugee camps.
At the start of the millennium, the world, through the UN, made a promise to children. We pledged that no matter where they resided, they would all have an education and an opportunity in life. Safety and protection should automatically be a part of that.
So there are three big decisions the world can take as we begin to fight back and turn the tables against those like Nigeria’s terrorist group Boko Haram, whose very name bans the education to which all children are entitled.
First, we must confront the fact that, with only 1% of humanitarian aid spent on keeping displaced children in school, a child’s right to education has become one of the first casualties of war. Before Syria’s civil war, almost all of its children were in school; today, Syrian children have one of the lowest enrollment rates in the world with 2.8 million displaced girls and boys having no access to education. South Sudanese children face a similar plight.
Passing around the begging bowl to international donors when a crisis erupts is time-consuming and has failed to deliver the right results. It is time for international partners to create a new Global Humanitarian Fund for Education in Emergencies, which could act immediately when the need for intervention arises.
The international community has set the Oslo Summit on Global Education in July as a deadline for progress. And while we await the big decision on a fund, in my capacity as UN Special Envoy, I have called a conference, together with Norway’s foreign minister, Børge Brende, on educating the half-million Syrian child refugees now in Lebanon. Our aim is to raise the missing $163 million needed to operate a double shift system in Lebanese schools and to agree on enrollment targets for educating all Syrian child refugees.
Second, to prevent the militarization of schools, we need to ensure that aggressors know that bombing schools is a war crime, and that using schools as instruments of war will be punished. All countries should sign the international Safe School Declaration that has been drawn up in the light of recent atrocities to protect schools from military use and attacks – or be named and shamed for not doing so. Indeed, schools should be shielded by protections similar to those extended to Red Cross hospitals under the Geneva Conventions.
The world also needs to take immediate action to create more “Safe Schools.” In Nigeria, a Safe Schools Initiative, started by Nigerian businesses and backed by President Goodluck Jonathan to address the repeated atrocities committed by Boko Haram, is now reassuring parents that everything possible is being done to protect their children’s schools. Thousands of girls who shunned school in fear are returning to their studies as a result of the initial success of Nigeria's pilot program and due to the provision of safe schools for the internally displaced.
We have also announced a new Safe Schools partnership between the private and public sectors in Pakistan. With the support of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, we are launching a 1,000-school pilot program to use technology to strengthen security, and we will shortly announce plans to extend the Safe Schools Initiative to South Sudan, Lebanon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As the Security Council discusses these options, the objective must be clear: Perpetrators of attacks on schools and abductions of children should find themselves up against the international community’s immovable resistance. They must respect the rights of children to education – or face the most severe consequences.
France, which currently leads the Security Council, is rightly requesting that member states come forward with concrete proposals, not a rehashing of past resolutions or efforts. In preparation for the annual report of the Secretary General on Children in Armed Conflict, to be released in June, the Security Council is being asked to consider the full range of tools – diplomatic action, mediation, sanctions and rehabilitation of boys and girls – to protect children’s right to learn. Bold action, not more lofty rhetoric, will be required.