18 March 2009
Deputy Secretary-General

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro’s remarks to the General Assembly’s thematic debate on the right to education in emergency, post-crisis and transition situations caused by manmade conflicts and natural disasters, in New York today:

I am pleased to welcome you to this important debate.  I thank the President of the General Assembly for convening it.  I am especially grateful to the Permanent Representatives of Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Norway and Qatar, who have done so much to make this meeting possible.

I share your sense of urgency about this issue.  Education is crucial in emergency and crisis situations.  Children caught in conflicts and disasters are among the most vulnerable people in the world.

The United Nations estimates that there are anywhere from 75 to 93 million children who do not attend school.  Nearly half of them live in conflict-torn countries.  Millions more would be in class, but natural disasters have made that impossible.

Education is just a dream for too many children -- for the girl who is too scared of attacks to walk to school; for the boy who hides from local militia trying to recruit him; for the teenager whose classroom was buried in an earthquake.

Tragically, far too many children cannot get an education because their schools are directly targeted.  In recent years, there has been an alarming spike in the number of brutal attacks on schools, education workers, teachers and even students.

Girls and female teachers, especially, have been attacked, disfigured and killed.

In Afghanistan last year, there were more than 275 attacks against schools.  Sixty-six people were killed and nearly as many injured.  Most of them were children.  The Secretary-General draws this appalling situation to the attention of the Security Council in a report, in March, on the United Nations mission there.

One father in Kandahar said he did not object to his daughter getting an education, but he also did not want her to be killed on her way to school.

His daughter dreams of being a doctor.  But his fears for her are all too real.  Last November, the world was justifiably outraged when men on motorcycles in Kandahar sprayed acid on girls going to school.  The world was also inspired by the determination of many girls to attend school despite the risk, undeterred by those who would deny them not only their ambitions, but also their human rights.

Protecting children and teachers is a moral imperative.  It is also a matter of international law.  The right to education is enshrined in numerous United Nations declarations and resolutions, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Several international conventions and instruments of international humanitarian law also protect schools.  But violators continue to abduct, rape and murder.  They attack schools, and even turn them into military recruitment centres.

These attacks might have diverse motivations -- political, military, ideological, sectarian, ethnic or religious.  The attackers themselves might also be quite varied -– criminals, terrorists or, at times, even Governments.  But what every single attack on any school, teacher or student shares is this:  it can never be justified or tolerated.

Education shapes the future.  This is even truer in countries upended by fighting or disaster, where all sense of normalcy has been lost.  Education is the first step towards restoring security and hope.

Where children have been thrown into chaos, schools can provide some measure of stability.  Schools can also teach them to avoid landmines, protect themselves from child labour, sexual exploitation and HIV, or evacuate in case disaster strikes again.  That is why it is so critical that all schools teach emergency plans.

Moreover, by ensuring access to education, we can limit the impact of emergencies while laying the foundation for a stable future.  We can set societies on the path towards reconciliation.  And we can advance other rights, such as gender equality.

Governments must deliver on their promise of basic education for all children, including in times of emergencies.  They must ensure that schools, students and teachers are protected.  And they must investigate and prosecute anyone who attacks them.

Ideally, children can get an education in schools even during a crisis.  But when that is not possible, we need to identify alternative “safe spaces” where they can learn, no matter what else is going on.

The United Nations is working hard to keep this issue in the spotlight.  We are promoting quality education standards.  And we are helping children to study even under the worst conditions.

UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund], for example, has a wonderful tool called “school-in-a-box”.  This ordinary-looking aluminium box has enough supplies to educate 80 students just about anywhere –- under a tent in a refugee camp, or on the side of a road.

But we need to do even more.  All countries and agencies must include education in their emergency plans.  We also need funding.  The financial crisis should not be an excuse for reducing funding for books and teaching.  We can never forget that books and teaching are the bricks and mortar we can use to rebuild our economies.

I am very encouraged that the General Assembly is holding this debate.  It is important to state our principles and announce our commitments.  But most of all, after this meeting is over, we must act -- for the sake of children everywhere caught in crisis, where education makes the difference between hope and despair.

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For information media • not an official record