Protecting Education in Armed Conflict: Access and Accountability

On Thursday, 14 March 2024, during a side event to the 55th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), panelists discussed challenges and solutions related to the protection and provision of education in conflict settings. 

The event, co-organised by the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencies (EiE Hub) and Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, and co-sponsored by Colombia, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), the Group of Friends on Children and Armed Conflicts, Malta and Switzerland, affirmed the unique value and importance of education during armed conflict, stressing the urgent need to better protect education from attack.  

“Education is a muscle of resilience for children,” said Philip Jaffé, member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. “In armed conflict, it allows them to come together, get attention from adults, and build interconnection with other children, at a moment when everything is chaotic. Education is an antidote to armed conflict.” 

The discussions emphasised challenges related to attacks against schools, other educational facilities and staff, including the military use of schools. Panelists underscored that norms, mandates, resolutions, political declarations and other tools to prevent attacks, protect students, teachers and education facilities, and hold perpetrators of attacks accountable, are in place and should be implemented. 

Efforts to better protect education from attack were highlighted, including through the Safe Schools Declaration. Examples of concrete actions taken by States that endorsed the declaration were given, such as the criminalisation of both attacks on schools and the military use of schools. Speakers encouraged States to endorse and implement the declaration, and its Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. 

The discussion also tackled the intersectionality of the protection of education in armed conflict: “We need to strengthen the capacities of different sectors to really work on protecting education,” said Ilaria Paolazzi, Senior Advocacy and Policy Adviser, GCPEA. “Attacks really affect a wide range of rights, so there has to be a multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral approach to the issue, and more coordinated action across national, regional and international levels.” 

Anfal Saqib, Education Specialist, Education Cannot Wait (ECW), added that gender-based violence should not be forgotten in attacks and stressed the importance of holistic responses. 

Panelists also pointed out that “Attacks on schools and hospitals” is one of the six grave violations identified under the UN Security Council’s Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) Agenda. “During Malta’s term as Chair of the UN Security Council Working Group on CAAC in New York since January 2022, the Working Group has published conclusions on Children and Armed Conflict in numerous countries. In each, it included language on education and attacks on schools and hospitals. Furthermore, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR)’s Article 26 lists education as a Human Right”, said Bernard Charles Mifsud, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Malta to the UN, Geneva. 

A point was also made on opportunities to leverage human rights mechanisms to prioritise education in conflict settings, as highlighted in the report of the Workshop on Education in Emergencies in the UN Human Rights Mechanisms organized in June 2023 by the EiE Hub. 

“Malta continues to be convinced of the necessity to strengthen interlinkages between New York and Geneva – and in Geneva, Malta makes particular use of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism. We also fully support the work of the HRC’s Special Procedures”, further explained Bernard Charles Mifsud. 

Amb. Julien Thöni, Deputy Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations, recalled that this year is the 75th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions and emphasized the right to education provided as well by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. “We need discussions like today to be followed by actions as education is key for peace and the future,” he said. 

The panel discussion also featured a briefing by Ivan, a youth advocate from Ukraine, supported by Lumos. Bethany Ellis, Global Advocacy Adviser, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, moderated the event.