18 March 2009
Press Conference

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

press conference on access to education in emergency, post-crisis situations


Two senior United Nations officials today called on the international community to elevate the centrality of education to the front of the humanitarian agenda, similar to the way in which the world dealt with emergency response, particularly where children were involved.


Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, and Nicholas Burnett, Assistant Director-General for Education at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), made the call at a Headquarters press conference, where they briefed on the General Assembly’s day-long interactive thematic debate on Education in Emergencies.  (See Press Release GA/10812.)


The two officials also called for better funding for education, particularly for girls.  “We want education as an emergency response.  As you know, water, sanitation and food are considered as emergency response.  But what we’re pushing for is to ensure that education is an integral part of emergency programmatic planning and response,” said Ms. Coomaraswamy, pointing out that education brought stability, normality and routine into a child’s life, which was absolutely essential, especially when children were displaced.  Schools should be recognized as zones of peace where children could feel secure, even in situations of conflict as such a sense of safety was absolutely crucial for them.


She expressed serious concern about attacks on schools, whether they were part of aerial bombardments, targeted attacks on schools, teachers and students; as well as use of schools for military activities.  All such actions were considered violations of international humanitarian law and perpetrators should be held accountable for them.  It was significant that the meeting had dedicated an entire session of the thematic debate on accountability to examining that particular issue in more detail.


Internally displaced children especially needed education, she said, adding that her Office was in the process of formulating rights and guarantees for them, of which education would be prominent.  The issue of girls’ right to education also had to be raised because it had increasingly come under threat in many parts of the world, including southern Thailand.  Those attacks were “seriously chronicled” in the Secretary-General’s report.


Even emergency education must be of high quality because her Office had found in other parts of the world that, if done wrongly, education could actually make things worse, she said.  “If certain kinds of myths and legends are then given to children to make them hate it’s very important that there be quality education that works towards peaceful attitudes, especially if the UN is funding such programmes.”


Endorsing that message, Mr. Burnett, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, reiterated the centrality of education in dealing not only with poverty, but also exclusion.  Education in emergencies was absolutely central and today’s thematic debate provided visibility to one of the “most blatant causes of exclusion from education” ‑‑ conflict on the one hand, and natural disasters on the other.


He emphasized three things that must be addressed in the longer-term view.  First was the need for a better international monitoring system.  Although it was known that there were attacks on schools, educational institutions, students and teachers, it was not definitively known whether they were increasing or not, though the general impression was that they appeared to be increasing.  In addition to the publication Education Under Attack, published by UNESCO in 2007, the agency’s input to the Secretary-General’s eighth annual report on children and armed conflict further documented grave violations during 2008 in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq, among other countries.


He said the second need concerned financing, which fell into two problem categories ‑‑ general and particular.  The general problem was the lack of sufficient international aid for education, with an annual gap of approximately $7 billion in meeting education for all girls.  The particular problem was that about half of those children, or 75 million children around the world who were of primary school age but did not attend, were in countries suffering or emerging from conflict.  “And so it is somewhat remarkable ‑‑ and perhaps it will change as a result of this thematic debate now going on ‑‑ that only six bilateral donors actually include education in their humanitarian policy and response.”  Those countries were Canada, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.


The third point was the need to take a longer-term view and prepare for natural disasters, including in countries which might still experience further conflict.  That preparation could be accomplished by ensuring that the children, teachers and staff knew what to do in the event of an emergency of whatever type.  Another, perhaps much more important aspect in the long term, was preparing people to live together.  It was in that area that education was invaluable.


Education was, therefore, not just about learning facts and figures, but about values, peace, understanding each other and recognizing diversity, he said.  Unfortunately education was not necessarily a top priority on the development agenda and certainly not on the humanitarian agenda.  “We hope this is going to change as a result of this thematic debate.”  UNESCO was already scaling up its support to humanitarian response operations and thus playing a role through the education cluster.


Asked why the UNESCO report made no mention of Israeli attacks on schools in the Gaza Strip, and why the issue had been totally ignored, Mr. Burnett said that just went to reinforce the serious need for a proper monitoring system.  Also, the report was a one-off publication done several years ago, before the recent conflict in Gaza, and had been based on information made available at the time.  “We need a better, agreed international monitoring system, and I think your point just reinforces that point.”


Ms. Coomaraswamy added that, to some extent, her Office had addressed those concerns in its report to the Human Rights Council, which chronicled all attacks on schools during the recent confrontation in Gaza.


Responding to a question about why wealthy nations were reluctant to finance education, Mr. Burnett said there were two aspects to that question.  First, in the particular situation of financing education immediately after a conflict or disaster, there was a sense that education was considered a development matter rather than a humanitarian one.  That was “completely wrong” for reasons outlined earlier and because education was, after all, a right.  However, the emphasis was usually placed on the provision of shelter, food, clean water and medicines.


He said the second aspect of the question related to the international community’s failure to live up to commitments made in 2000 as part of the Dakar “Education for All” meeting.  It was important to remind the international community not only of that obligation, but of another one made at Gleneagles, where again major commitments made had not been fulfilled.


Asked whether her Office had been monitoring recent attacks on girls’ schools in Pakistan, Ms. Coomaraswamy confirmed that both her Office and UNICEF were following the situation closely, although regrettably the incidents had occurred too late to make it into the Secretary-General’s annual report.  Hopefully details could be included in next year’s report and perhaps even in the Special Representative’s horizontal report to the Security Council once the exact figures and the situation became clear.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record