On September 10, 2020, Niger, in its capacity as UN Security Council president for the month, convened an open debate on children and armed conflict (CAAC), with a focus on attacks on schools. The debate followed the first International Day to Protect Education from Attack, which was established in May upon the adoption of General Assembly Resolution 74/275 (A/RES/74/275) and observed on September 9, 2020.

Attacks on schools and hospitals are one of the six grave violations against children in armed conflict and a ‘trigger’ violation for listing of parties to conflict in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s (SG) annual report on children and armed conflict. This year, the SG’s annual report documents In 2019 alone, the UN verified 494 attacks on schools.

Under the Council presidency of Niger, the open debate highlighted the Central Sahel region, where attacks on education have surged in recent years. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) reports that over 430 attacks on education occurred in the Central Sahel between 2015 and 2019.

Ahead of the debate, the Council adopted the first-ever Presidential Statement dedicated solely to the protection of education from attack (S/PRST/2020/8), co-authored by Niger and Belgium. The statement calls for an end to attacks on education, urges Member States to address and prevent attacks against schools, expresses concern about the deliberate targeting of girls and women, and notes the efforts of signatories to the Safe Schools Declaration – the only international agreement dedicated to the protection of education in armed conflict.

In her briefing to the Council, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC), Ms. Virginia Gamba, commended the 105 signatories to date of the Safe Schools Declaration. She expressed concern that, despite progress, attacks on education seem to be an emerging tactic of war, particularly in the Sahel and even more so in schools catering to girls. SRSG Gamba highlighted the dire impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as school closures and economic consequences have contributed to recruitment and use, sexual exploitation, and child marriage. Her briefing concluded with a reminder to all governments of their duty to protect education, even during times of war and pandemic.

Executive Director of UNICEF, Ms. Henrietta Fore, spoke to the increasingly protracted, complex, and violent nature of today’s conflicts. Attacks on schools, she said, are “designed with one purpose in mind – to rob children, communities, and countries of any semblance of safety, optimism, or hope for the future.” Ms. Fore reported that one-fifth of last year’s verified attacks took place in West and Central Africa, including the Sahel, and cited an increasing number of attacks on schools in Burkina Faso and Niger. She urged governments to commit to flexible, multiyear funding to rebuild schools and reminded them that taking concrete measures to protect education from attack and end impunity are essential for States to fulfill their obligations.

Ms. Marika Tsolakis, Senior Researcher at GCPEA, briefed the Council on the alarming rate of attacks on education in the Sahel and other parts of the world. Ms. Tsolakis highlighted the difficulties of monitoring and reporting attacks in the Sahel due to insecurity. She detailed how the lack of gender-disaggregated data prevents effective gender-sensitive prevention and response, as GCPEA’s research shows that female students and teachers are often specifically targeted during attacks on education. Ms. Tsolakis proposed steps the Council could take to better protect education in armed conflict, including endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration and ensuring UN peace operations and special political missions have child protection mandates and the capacity to effectively monitor and report on attacks on schools.

The Council then heard from two youth representatives, Ms. Rimana Youssouf Assane Mayaki and Ms. Hadiza, both secondary school students and activists in Niger. The two shared their experiences in relation to attacks on education. Ms. Mayaki highlighted targeted attacks on education by non-State armed groups, who purposefully aim to deprive children of their right to education. She called on the international community to act, end impunity, and provide psychosocial support to victims of these attacks. Ms. Hadiza recounted her own experience with displacement and how the COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated the realities for children in armed conflict. She described witnessing classmates abducted during attacks on schools and the suffering so many have endured. Ms. Hadiza concluded by calling on the Council to ensure the security of schools in armed conflicts around the world and to protect the rights of children.

In the ensuing discussion, Council members voiced strong condemnation for attacks on schools and acknowledged the devastating impacts of reduced access to education on children and the global community at large. Many expressed the need to strengthen monitoring and reporting, including disaggregating data for more gender-sensitive analysis and response. Several Council members highlighted the importance of the Safe Schools Declaration while congratulating Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on becoming the 105th signatory and encouraging Member States who had not yet done so, to endorse the Declaration. Several Member States also reiterated the importance of a credible list of perpetrators in annexes of the SG’s annual report, which consistently reflects the report’s findings and thereby contributes to ending the cycle of impunity. Overall themes included support for the SG’s call for a global ceasefire, the recognition of education as a right, and the consensus that education cannot wait.

To watch the Security Council’s 8756th meeting, ‘Children and armed conflict: Attacks against schools as a grave violation of children’s rights,’ click here.