Tomorrow morning (13 October), France, Italy, Sweden and Uruguay are organising an Arria-formula meeting on the issue of attacks on schools. The briefers will be Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba; Joy Bishara, one of the female students kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014; and Zama Neff, co-chair of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.
Attacks against schools and hospitals are one of the six grave violations included in the monitoring and reporting mechanism for violations against children established by resolution 1612 in 2005. In 2011, the Council adopted resolution 1998, which designated these attacks as a grave violation that could trigger a listing of parties in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual report on children and armed conflict. This resolution asked for parties listed for attacks on schools and hospitals to prepare action plans to halt these violations. In 2014, the Council further addressed this issue by adopting resolution 2143 on the military use of schools, which urged parties to conflict to respect the civilian character of schools and encouraged member states to consider concrete measures to deter the use of schools by armed forces and non-state armed groups, as well as to investigate such attacks.
The concept note for the meeting states that one of the objectives is to share first-hand accounts of attacks on schools, teachers and students, and the military use of schools. Bishara is expected to speak about her experience of being kidnapped by Boko Haram militants from a government secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria, along with almost 300 other girls in April 2014. She will probably emphasise the importance of protecting schools so that students can study safely.
Another objective of the Arria-formula meeting is to assess progress in stopping and preventing attacks on schools and in taking concrete steps to deter the use of schools for military purposes. In 2016, the UN documented more than 500 attacks on schools or related education personnel in 18 of the 20 conflict countries covered by the Secretary-General’s 2017 annual report. It also reported almost 200 cases of military use of schools in 15 countries. In the annexes of the 2017 annual report the following parties are listed for attacks on schools and hospitals: former Séléka coalition in the Central African Republic; the Allied Democratic Forces and the Forces de Résistance Patriotique d'Ituri in the Democratic and Republic of the Congo (DRC); Boko Haram in Nigeria; ISIL in both Iraq and Syria; government forces in Syria; and the Houthis in Yemen. None of these parties have signed action plans to stop attacks on schools and hospitals as requested in resolution1998.
In her report to the General Assembly (A/72/276), Special Representative Gamba suggested that the issue of children missing out on education owing to the effects of conflict required urgent attention, and noted that this violation was of particular concern in Afghanistan, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen. In her briefing tomorrow, Gamba is expected to reiterate these points. She may also highlight that in Yemen and Syria the majority of these attacks are carried out from the air, and stress that armed forces and groups should make more effort to ensure that their rules of engagement reflect the principles of distinction and proportionality. Gamba may also cover two other areas of concern: the use of schools for military purposes and targeted attacks on education personnel and students and parents. In addition, she may talk about the impact of attacks on education and possible measures that member states could take to protect children’s access to education.
Ways of improving the protection of schools, teachers and students is the third objective of the Arria-formula meeting. In her briefing, Neff is expected to focus on the Safe Schools Declaration, which was developed in a state-led process headed by Argentina and Norway and opened for endorsement in 2015, as a practical measure to achieve this goal. It is a voluntary, political commitment from governments not to use schools for military purposes and to protect them during military operations.
In her briefing, Neff may highlight the number of members that have signed on from different regions. Sixty-nine countries from all regions of the world have joined so far, including most NATO and EU members. Neff may note that only five Council members (France, Italy, Kazakhstan, Sweden, and Uruguay) have signed the Declaration. In addition, she is expected to explain how countries that support the Declaration make a commitment to protect students, teachers and students from attack in conflicts among others. This can be done, for example, by collecting data on attacks, assisting victims, investigating and prosecuting attacks that violate the law, and working to ensure that education continues during armed conflict. Neff may further provide information on how those endorsing the Declaration also commit to using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use.
Council members who have endorsed the Declaration may share their views on how this could be a way forward for governments striving to take steps to prevent attacks on education. While there is a growing sense that the Declaration could be useful in getting greater commitment from governments to address ways of protecting children and their right to education, a number of Council members are still reluctant to endorse the Declaration due to concerns about possible additional legal obligations beyond what is found in the laws of war, as well as the possibility of greater accountability for infractions by their troops engaging in conflict areas.