A Clash Between Principles and Politics? The Outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit

On 23-24 May, Turkey hosted the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. The Summit aimed to define strategies and actions that would contribute to the goal set out by Ban Ki-moon’s Agenda for Humanity to reduce the suffering of more than 125 million people affected by armed conflicts and natural disasters. For this purpose, the Agenda stipulated five core responsibilities: 1. Prevent and end conflict, 2. Respect rule of law, 3. Leave no one behind, 4. Working differently to end need; and 5. Invest in humanity.

In order to fulfill these responsibilities, 9,000 stakeholders participating in the Summit made a total of 1,500 commitments. One of these was to firmly establish education as a humanitarian priority. To this end, UNICEF launched the fund, `Education Cannot Wait´, which aims to deliver quality education to more than 13.6 million children and youth living in 35 crisis-affected countries (75 million by 2030). For this purpose, it seeks to attract US $3.85bn in funding in the next five years.

The new fund is one of the most concrete and integrated recent actions to strengthen and facilitate aid to education, a sector that remains under-prioritized and underfunded within humanitarian aid. Generally less than 2 per cent of humanitarian aid goes towards funding education, well below the 4 per cent target set by the Global Education First Initiative. To address this situation, and to fill the funding gap, the fund aims to deliver a more coordinated, collaborative and rapid response in order to fulfill the right to education in emergencies and protracted crises. It has received the support of a strong group of donors including the European Union, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States Agency for International Development.

One of the main operating mechanisms of the fund focuses on returning children and youth to education by promoting appropriate access to education and safe learning spaces. However, the challenges in this regard go beyond the source and coordination of funding. According to the Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, during 2015 the number of grave violations committed against children increased dramatically, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. These violations include the recruitment and use of children, the killing and maiming of children, and attacks on schools and/or hospitals. As an illustration of the urgency of these concerns, Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, Chairperson of Education Above All, noted during the World Humanitarian Summit that, “The destruction of schools are not just ‘accidents’ of war. Education is under attack. Our schools are the battlefield. It is time to fight back.”

It is uncertain, however, if the world can live up to the commitments made in Istanbul, as conflicts appear intractable and civilians continue to suffer. The political difficulties of addressing the destruction of schools in conflict situations were clearly illustrated this month, when Saudi Arabia successfully put pressure on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to remove the Saudi-led coalition from his annual `list of shame´ for violations against children in Yemen (Annex I of the Annual Report on `Children and Armed Conflict´). The Saudi threats to withdraw hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the UN and to break ties with the world organization trumped the reports by several non-governmental and monitoring groups that held the coalition responsible for 60 per cent of the 1,953 child casualties and several attacks on schools and hospitals documented in Yemen in 2015.

This is not an isolated case: last year, the United States threatened to cancel assistance to the UN, when the UN Special Envoy for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, recommended to include Israel’s armed forces in the list because of its allegedly disproportionate military operations in Gaza in 2014. In this case, the UN chief decided not to blacklist Israel in the Annual Report covering 2014. The United States case set a precedent that the Saudi-led coalition used to justify its removal from the `list of shame´. Both episodes together undermine the international community’s commitments to prevent attacks on civilians and schools as part of humanitarian action.

To foster the prevention of these attacks within the humanitarian sector, it is timely to recall the core commitments of the Agenda for Humanity, especially the two most salient and political ones: ´prevent and end conflict´ and `respect the laws of war´. For the former, acting early in potential conflict situations, improving local and international capacities and addressing the root causes of conflict could significantly mitigate the impact of violent conflict on education. For the latter, it remains vital to close the gap between principles (or commitments) and practice by fully respecting international humanitarian law, protecting civilians, avoiding the misuse of civilian infrastructure, holding perpetrators to account, and condemning violations in order to protect children, schools and universities. This should be a core goal of the world organization in general, and individual member states in particular.

The two core commitments mentioned above, further demonstrate that it is insufficient to focus only on humanitarian aid. We will also need to use an integrated political approach and apply the requisite political capital to achieve access to safe education for all. In the words of Sheikha Mosa: “Money is not enough to fulfill our obligations to provide every child with their right to education that they deserve. Without protection and prevention, what we spend years building can be destroyed in minutes.”

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