High-Level Panel Discussion during the UN International Day to Protect Education from Attack

Doha, Qatar, 09 September 2021


Moderator, Nicholas Kristof: Your Highness, this is the second International Day to Protect Education from Attack. Attacks on education continue throughout the world. My question to you is a simple one — in practical terms, what can this day achieve?

Thank you, Nick. But first, my warmest greetings to my friends and colleagues here today.

Congratulations to Antonio on his second term and to Mr. Karim Khan on his appointment as Chief of the ICC. I’m delighted to meet Your Excellency Mohamed Bazoum, President of Niger and I look forward to working together. Your Excellency, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdelrahman — thank you for your support of EAA and for being a strong advocate of education. I am so pleased to continue working with the ICRC, the EU and UNESCO.

As Director General Azoulay mentioned, we are really pleased to launch EAA’s new data project with UNESCO — which will help us towards our goal of ending attacks on education. I am so grateful to all of you who work so hard for education — and I am especially happy to see youth represented on this panel.

So, Nick, your question was about what a day like today can achieve.

The International Day to Protect Education from Attack will not halt attacks on education, any more than the International Day of Happiness can end anguish, or World Food Day eliminate hunger. We hold an international day to draw attention to the magnitude of an issue, and to provide a rallying point. Because there are millions of children who no longer have a school as a result of conflict.

Despite the pandemic, and despite the Secretary-General’s calls for a global ceasefire, the number of attacks on education increased by a third in 2020. In one year alone, there were nearly two thousand, four hundred attacks. The students and staff who are maimed and killed in these attacks, they aren’t collateral damage. They are being deliberately targeted. Attacked in cold blood in the very spaces where they should be safe to learn and play. Let me repeat, deliberately targeted.

But why? Why schools? Schools are places where new generations study their language, learn about their history, culture, and traditions. Develop a sense of identity, confidence, and agency.

The children in the video you just saw are not abstract ideas. They are real, these children who are co-opted into the military, forced to flee, orphaned or enslaved. They have been ripped from both the education and the cultural legacy that is their birthright.

And yet it seems they are invisible to the world, except for the occasional media sensation. Images of a child’s body washed up on a beach, or the twisted wreckage of a school bus hit by an air strike, capture global attention and suddenly everyone rallies to the cause. Then the shock fades, the news cycle rolls on, and the community is distracted by the next headline. Yet the problem remains.

Aggressors seek, not only to destroy the lives, but to annihilate the very history of those they attack. When they bomb buildings, smash monuments, and uproot trees that form the traditional heart of societies, attackers strip those societies of their history, distort their present and obliterate their future. Their cultural memory ravaged, the survivors who crawl from the wreckage are left with nothing.

The generations traumatized by their experiences — their wounds, visible and invisible — must find a foundation from which to rebuild. Education is that foundation, enabling them to recover from their trauma, to live with their wounds, and to find hope. That is why education is an alternative to chaos. That is why education is classed as a human right. Education is a powerful weapon against cultural annihilation.

Those who attack education are criminals. Criminals who steal far more than reading, writing and arithmetic. Such criminals should be held accountable. And yet, right now they get away with murder. When perpetrators make a premeditated choice to destroy education, to erase culture, and to end any possibility of peace, they should answer for their actions. And much of the time, we know exactly who is behind this destruction. We monitor these attacks, collecting the data that establishes culpability. With such strong evidence behind it, the international community should ensure that those responsible compensate the victims. Bring them to account. To face the consequences. And pay for the damage they have done.

So, Nick you asked me what can this day achieve?

In 2010, we worked together to pass the General Assembly Resolution on the Right to Education in Emergency Situations. 10 years later we came together again to institute the International Day to Protect Education from Attack.

And still, in more than 70 countries, school buildings are damaged, razed or used for military purposes. So, we must become more vigilant, make the invisible visible, both the victims and the victimizers.

Nick, today is our rallying point. It’s time to urge the international community to request the United Nations Security Council to take action, and bring those who commit atrocities against education, and what it represents, to justice. So the rootless victims of these 70 plus countries know that we are committed to their peace and security.