“Schools must be places of learning, safety and peace”, he said, lauding education as not only providing knowledge and skills but also transforming lives and driving development for people, communities and for societies.
Nevertheless, he added, “year after year, this fundamental right comes under attack”.
Stretching the imagination
The top UN official encouraged the participants to imagine being a child in a classroom eager to learn, or a teacher dedicated to shaping the minds of the next generation.
“Now imagine the horrors inflicted by conflict on learning”, he said, painting a picture of schools being targeted, destroyed – or used for military purposes – and of children facing violence, exploitation, even being recruited to fight – simply because they want to study.
The Secretary-General cited the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack in revealing that between 2015 and 2020, over 13,000 reports of strikes on education, or the military use of educational facilities, had been recorded around the world.
“And this threat is not lessening – as the horrifying events in Afghanistan are showing us so starkly”, he said.
Mr. Guterres reminded that these are not numbers on a page, but thousands of individual lives and individual futures.
“The loss is incalculable”, he stated.
Go beyond commitments
The UN called on all countries who have not yet done so, to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration – an inter-governmental political commitment to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities, from the worst effects of armed conflict.
Endorsed by 111 States to date, the Declaration outlines concrete steps for governments to protect schools and learning.
“We urge Member States to go beyond their commitments under international law and put in place national policies and laws that protect schools and learners”, said the UN chief.
He flagged the need to “hold perpetrators accountable” by making attacks on schools “unacceptable and punished” in every country and jurisdiction, the world over.
Support international protections
Finally, the UN chief called for increased global support for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), who are “working around the clock” to protect education, students, teachers and schools in some of the most dangerous places around the world.
While great strides have been made in recent years, more must be done to protect the right to education for all, he upheld.
“As Secretary-General of the United Nations, I am proud to stand with you in this important effort. Because when we protect education, we protect the future”, he concluded.
© UNRWA/Kazem Abu Khalaf
Students wear face masks at a school in the Far’a refugee camp in the West Bank.
Name the day
In May 2020, the UN General Assembly established the day by a unanimous decision, calling on UNESCO and UNICEF to raise awareness of the plight of millions of children living in countries affected by conflict.
The resolution affirmed that Governments have the primary responsibility to provide protection and ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education at all levels to all learners, especially those in vulnerable situations”.
Moreover, it emphasized the need to intensify efforts and increase funding to promote safe and protective school environments in humanitarian emergencies.