The Hague Institute Distinguished Seminar Series Lecture ‘Education, law and the SDGs’

The Netherlands, 19 May 2017


Your Majesty, Your Excellencies, Fellow advocates, Distinguished guests.

Good morning.

It is just perfect to be here today in Den Haag. A city that was once so badly damaged in conflict and then rebuilt. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction, The Hague has become a symbol of the post-1945 promise of peace, security and justice. Yet we are here today because global justice has gone blind.We have broken that promise.

All of us here today are aware of the unprecedented crisis facing education due to war and displacement.The figures speak for themselves.One quarter of all school-aged children in the world now live in countries devastated by conflict.

Education is a casualty of war. But – even more horrifying - attacks on education are frequently used as an instrument of war. In most conflicts, from Colombia to Yemen, education is deliberately targeted. Schools are burned down. Teachers are murdered. Students are recruited as child soldiers.

But statistics are like shadows – they only hint at the human horror that they reflect. They cannot quantify the loss of hope in children, nor the sullying of their souls. We must not allow ourselves to be normalized to those statistics. Instead, we need to constantly remind ourselves of them. For those who attack schools, are not just damaging walls or infrastructure. They are inflicting lifelong trauma on hundreds of millions of children. Depriving them of a future. Robbing them of dignity and humanity. Blunting civilization.

I have dedicated more than 20 years of my life to protecting and providing education across the globe to the most marginalised children. When I set out, I was an optimist and an idealist. But a transformative journey has changed me into a reluctant realist. Progress that has taken years to develop can be demolished in an instant when conflict erupts. Take the example of Iraq. After the occupation in 2003, Iraqi scientists and educators were being targeted as a way to destabilize the nation. They came to us, desperate for protection. We did everything we could to help them. We even provided them with bullet proof vests. But one by one they were all killed.

Look at Gaza – after more than 40 Palestinian children and their teachers were killed in their UN-run school in 2009, we spent millions helping to rebuild education facilities and opportunities. And what happened? In the summer 2014, many of the schools we helped to rebuild in Gaza were destroyed again. So much work and so many young lives and dreams wiped out. And without consequences for those responsible.

Perhaps one of our challenges is that the word ‘education’ does not evoke what it truly aspires to. For the meaning of a school is infinitely greater than the sum of cement and desks. It is an incubator of children’s souls and minds. It is the building block of their dreams. When it’s gone, what’s left is a dark void. A void that reverberates to the sound of bombs and gunfire. A legacy of violence and hopelessness as that child’s future is lost forever. A child’s future takes years to build. But when conflict breaks out, and when a school is bombed, It is not only bricks that crumble. For bricks can be replaced. But what can never be replaced is the hearts and futures of children.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are gathered here at The Hague to discuss how to reform the institutions that are failing to protect the world’s children. We must channel our righteous anger at this destruction into responsible leadership. Now, more than ever, we need to reassert our common goal - to protect education during war. To provide education even in conflict and insecurity. This is when it is most difficult, and yet most urgent, to build sustainable peace. So, what can be done?

First, we need to prevent attacks on education. We need to make children safe as they learn. This requires adherence by all to the international laws, resolutions and principles that aim to protect education. Adherence to these laws must start from the top. Because right now, the perpetrators of crimes against education are not being held to account. Why?

Because our international institutions are being paralysed from doing the job they were set up to do – preventing conflict and humanitarian crisis. The Security Council is the body charged by the UN Charter to ensure international peace and security. Yet it is broken in exactly those situations where it is needed most – to hold to account those who commit grave violations of international law.

As an example, let’s take Syria, where at least 4,000 schools have been destroyed since the conflict there began. I am certain we all remember the appalling crime when dozens of children, teachers and parents were killed in air strikes on their school complex in Idlib Province last October. Yet, the Security Council failed in its duty to unite, to collectively condemn this atrocity, and to ensure accountability for these crimes against education and children.

If the masters of the world are not actively pursuing peace, we are stuck in a vicious cycle of destruction that we – as the global community - are destined to lose. For we simply cannot rebuild at the pace at which infrastructure is being destroyed. Instead, we watch through broken windows, as the big players continue their deadly card game – recklessly gambling away lives, changing the rules with every round, flipping and shuffling their cards to suit their strategic interests, with apparent disregard for the fires raging outside.

But this is not a game for the grieving parents of Idlib. Nor for the girls still being held captive by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Nor for the millions of children around the world in refugee camps, robbed of their chance to learn. We need the masters of the world to put the pursuit of peace and security before their game-playing.

The UN Security Council should be using its powers under Chapter VI of the UN Charter that allows for the peaceful settlement of disputes without resort to violence. It has the power to investigate, establish facts, make recommendations to the parties and refer disputes for further action and resolution. Yet, time after time, important resolutions are vetoed. Indeed, since 1946, UN Security Council resolutions have been vetoed on nearly 200 occasions. And with each veto, an opportunity to prevent conflict, and establish peace, is lost. Instead, the masters are playing out their ‘great game’ at the expense of the most vulnerable - the children who they should be protecting - and depriving them of their future.

Let us together call for greater transparency, accountability and the responsible use of the veto to promote security and peace. To those who think that they can attack schools, students and teachers with impunity, we should join together and say: "We are watching you, and we are determined to gather the evidence and use the law to hold you to account for the harm that you cause to generations of children".

For those of us who have been entrusted with the vision of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, let us reassert that education is the cornerstone of sustainable development. And we cannot construct a building if the cornerstones keep getting destroyed. Nor can we construct a durable building without investing in education as a tool in post-conflict recovery. Those delivering the world aid development budgets should recognise the long-term value of investing in secure, quality education. And acknowledge the potential of education to prevent and heal conflict as well as build resilience within communities.

My EAA foundation has been working for almost a decade to protect education, and to provide access to education for millions of children. What we see, wherever we work, is that by putting education at the centre of development, and by working with a multi-sectoral approach to all our projects,

lives and communities are improved in so many ways.

Allow me to give you an example of one of our projects which is providing access to primary education, but also using that education as a catalyst to build financial skills and income generation for the wider community. We are working with local partners in Bale Ethiopia, where poverty is a major barrier preventing children from going to school. So we help the community develop micro-enterprises that in turn pay for the running of the school. Schools are given seeds, for instance. The parents then grow crops that can be sold, and the proceeds sustain the school and its activities.    So not only can the children go to school, but the parents are also developing new financial skills, community cohesiveness is improved, and the school becomes self-sustaining.

This type of access to financial literacy is something I know Her Majesty is rightly working hard to promote, as it is so crucial to achieve the vision of the global goals. Both education and skills-building are now known to improve post-conflict recovery and prevent societies falling back into conflict.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the midst of destruction, education brings the promise of renewal and a better future. I would like to tell you about a boy I met recently. A boy who refused to allow the most extreme destruction extinguish his ambition. I was in Sudan, visiting a school being supported through my EAA foundation. The school works with children who have been displaced due to conflict and have missed out on years of lessons. As I walked through the school, one boy caught my eye. He was about 10 or 11, and was sitting beside some remarkable mechanical inventions he had made, such as solar-powered cars, and an electronic flagpole. As I admired his inventions, I noticed next to them a model of a house. It looked a little out of place next to the mechanical things, so I asked him about it. His answer astounded me because he gave it with total and absolute certainty. He said: "This is the home I will build for my family one day". So here was a boy who had fled from war. He had seen untold horrors. He had left his home with absolutely nothing. And now – thanks to education – he is living. He is dreaming. He has a chance to realise his inherent potential.

It struck me in that moment that only education can transform lives in this way. So, despite my anger at all the destruction, seeing the impact of education on this one boy, renews my determination to go on fighting. Despite my exasperation, my belief in the transformative power of education will not waiver. I will continue to fight, and I will continue to seek out opportunities to plant the seeds of children’s futures, even in the most violent or desperate of circumstances.

The situation of attacks on education is dire, but we cannot become desensitised to human suffering. We need to channel our anger into intelligent sustained action. There is so much we can achieve when we join forces in partnership and purpose.

We need all of the bodies meeting here today - NGOs, activists, humanitarians, and international entities to reach out to those with power and to the citizens of the world - to make them aware of the crisis we are facing in the protection of education globally. We must call on those in power to live up to their values and responsibilities, and invest in education that will ensure resilient and flourishing societies.

Let us commit to public advocacy as an engine of change. Let us remember that the roots of change always emerge through grass roots activism.

Let us live up to our values – the shared human values of security, peace and justice upon which this wonderful city was rebuilt.

Let us embody the words of the 16th century Dutch humanist Erasmus when said that: "The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth". 

Thank you