“Their Hope for a Brighter Future Inspires Us All”

By Yasmine Sherif
NEW YORK, Jan 23 2021 – Looking back upon 2020, we all bear the scars of a devastating year; none so much as girls and boys around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education for over 1.6 billion children and youth globally and continues to do so. It has also deepened socio-economic inequities and heightened insecurities around the world, further impacting the lives of girls and boys everywhere. Ongoing, protracted conflicts, forced displacement and the worsening climate crisis were no less forgiving.

Yasmine Sherif

2020 was, in short, a brutal year for the world’s children and youth – most markedly upon the 75 million children and youth whose education had already been disrupted by emergencies and protracted crises, and who are now doubly-hit by COVID-19 – and the impacts continue to this day. It is crucial that we take a moment to reflect upon and mark the International Day of Education on 24 January 2021. It is exactly now that we need to reinforce our commitment to education as the crucial tool to carve a path forward for all the world’s children and their futures, as was hammered home to me again on my recent trips to Burkina Faso and Lebanon – both reeling from multiple crises.

Conflict and insecurity have driven a million people from their homes in Burkina Faso in recent years. Educational facilities have been targeted, teachers and students have been attacked and school closures due to attacks doubled from 2017 to 2019, disrupting the education of more than 400,000 children.

Teachers and students in Kaya, the fifth-largest city in Burkina Faso, where many displaced families have fled to from insecurity and violence, showed me their tragic, challenging reality last week. Schools severely lacked infrastructure to house students, teaching materials were missing, and water and sanitation were non-existent. Some classrooms have tripled in size, now holding over a hundred pupils each.

On top of this, the pandemic resulted in the closure of all schools for several months in 2020. Currently, there are more than 2.6 million children out of school and in the six most severely affected regions of Burkina Faso, the primary school completion rate is only 29%.

Yet even in these ill-equipped and overcrowded schools, hope and positivity have not been extinguished and are being kept alive by teachers, workers and the irrepressible enthusiasm of the students themselves. Rodrigue Sawodogo, a nine-year-old boy displaced by conflict, told me, “I would like to become a policeman to save my country, because I want everyone to live in peace.”

The crisis in Burkina Faso and in the whole Central Sahel region is among the fastest deteriorating in the world. We can either watch and do nothing at all to help give a chance to children like Rodrigue to achieve their dreams, or we can actually act right now, by investing in children and adolescents to empower them to achieve their full potential and to become positive change agents for their communities.

Education Cannot Wait – the global fund dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crises — in partnership with the Government of Burkina Faso, UNICEF and Enfants du Monde, has launched a multi-year programme that aims to provide education to 800,000 children and adolescents in crisis-affected regions in the country. ECW is providing an initial $11.1 million for three years of seed funding. But that is not enough. We are calling on public and private donors to raise a further $48 million to reach every vulnerable child.

Just a few weeks before my visit to Burkina Faso, I also travelled to Lebanon in December 2020 to review the education crises the country is facing and to advocate globally for more funds to facilitate access to education for all. Lebanon hosts the largest proportion of refugees per capita of the local population in the world. Since 1948 it has been home to a large Palestinian refugee community, while more than one million Syrians have crossed the border since 2011.

Compounding economic, health and political crises are putting over a million children and youth at risk in Lebanon. According to ECW’s 2019 Annual Results Report, over 630,000 Syrian children and 447,400 vulnerable Lebanese children faced challenges accessing education.

The banking system has collapsed and more than half the country is living in poverty, according to a 2019 report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. And that was before COVID-19 deepened the economic recession and before Beirut’s port was ripped apart by a catastrophic explosion in August, killing 200 people, leaving 300,000 homeless and damaging 140 schools. Within a month of the blast, ECW approved a $1.5 million emergency fund to rapidly rehabilitate 40 schools and to support 30,000 girls and boys to resume learning.

During this latest mission, ECW worked alongside the Lebanese government, local NGOs and United Nations partners to establish multi-year resilience programmes in Lebanon. These aim to bridge the gap between short-term humanitarian responses and longer-term development interventions. A similar multi-year resilience programme for the education sector is about to be launched for Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Education is a development sector and it requires sustained investments to save millions of girls from early marriage, early childbirth and boys from joining armed terror groups.

To do so, Education Cannot Wait needs the funds required to fully fund these multi-year programmes. We are urgently appealing to public and private sector donors to help close the funding gap to provide inclusive, quality education to both internally displaced, refugee children and to vulnerable host communities.

Our past does not define our future. The violence, insecurities and crises that have defined 2020 will only inspire us to do more, to act quicker and to build a stronger and more resilient foundation. On this International Day of Education, we hope you can take a moment to reflect upon how education has impacted your life. Are you ready to share your privilege with others less fortunate?

We encourage you to think about the millions of children in multiple crises and how we all share a responsibility to help. We have all been affected by the pandemic. We share a common humanity and a common human experience. Let us serve the most vulnerable – crisis-affected children and youth – and let us be there for them when they most need us. Let our moral choices be translated into financial support. Let’s make Sustainable Development Goal 4 a reality for all those left furthest behind.

The author is Director, Education Cannot Wait


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Fiji’s Presidency of the Human Rights Council Brings Opportunity and Responsibility to the Pacific

Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan. Credit: Fiji Department of Information

By Miles Young and Ashley Bowe
SUVA, Fiji, Jan 22 2021 (IPS-Partners)

On Friday, 15 January, Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, was elected the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council for 2021. As the first Pacific islander to hold this position, the President has a unique opportunity to enhance the protection and promotion of human rights in Fiji and the Pacific, and to amplify Pacific voices on human rights issues at the global level. The presidency reflects the Pacific’s growing presence on the international human rights stage and comes at a time of increasing marginalisation, social exclusion and poverty arising out of COVID-19; opening the door for the President (and Fiji) to promote a human rights-based and people-centred approach to ‘building back better’.

The growing influence of the Pacific

Over the past few years, the Pacific has experienced positive developments in the area of human rights. As the recent ‘Human Rights in the Pacific: A Situational Analysis’ (SPC & OHCHR, 2021) highlights, there have been 14 ratifications/accessions of the core nine human rights treaties among Pacific Island Countries (PICs) over 2016-2020. Fiji is one of the first countries in the world to become party to all nine. While impressive, the challenge for PICs, including Fiji, is to convert these commitments into actual benefits for their people, through the realisation of the rights set out in the treaties.

There have been encouraging signs. For example, the Pacific has long considered climate change through the human rights lens. In 2020, Samoa hosted the 84th Outreach Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (‘CRC84’), the first time any of the UN treaty bodies has held a regional session outside of Geneva or New York, despite repeated attempts for decades to do so. CRC84 showed the tangible benefits that come from a UN treaty body meeting directly with the very people they are meant to serve. In 2019, PICs agreed to the ‘Pacific Principles of National Mechanisms for Implementation, Reporting & Following-up (‘NMIRFs’). The principles ensure more effective implementation, reporting and tracking of human rights commitments and obligations, and enhance public transparency in this area (Fiji had pledged to establish such a mechanism in its bid for the presidency). Countries across the globe have expressed interest in adopting and adapting these principles for their own NMIRFs. Samoa currently has one of the most comprehensive rights and development tracking tools, and the open-source software on which it is built is being used or considered in countries across the world.

We have also seen a greater Pacific presence in Geneva, where the UN Human Rights Office is headquartered, with Fiji and the Republic of the Marshall Islands becoming members of the Human Rights in 2018 and 2020, respectively. Having assumed the presidency of the Council against this backdrop of increasing Pacific standing on the global human rights stage and growing political support and leadership for implementation, it is incumbent upon Fiji to build on this momentum.

What is the Human Rights Council?

The Human Rights Council was established by the United Nations in 2006, and consists of 47 member states, elected by secret ballot, to protect and promote human rights. The Council can investigate alleged violations of human rights and examine thematic or systemic issues. Members are elected by the UN General Assembly (all UN member states), with consideration given to equitable geographical representation as well as the human rights record of candidates and their voluntary pledges to protect and promote human rights.

While not a perfect system, the Council has significantly improved the UN’s effectiveness in respect of its human rights mandate since its establishment in 2016, not least through the creation of the Universal Periodic Review – a peer review of each country’s human rights record every five years with recommendations for improvements and the monitoring of and technical support for implementation. Unlike the UN Security Council, there is no veto and members have equal voting rights, enabling the Council to be more responsive and nimble in responding to human rights issues and contributing to its growing influence and credibility.

Role of President, Human Rights Council

The presidency of the Human Rights Council rotates on a yearly basis between the five regional groups of the UN. The President is required to set the agenda for the Council and play a role in the appointment of independent experts to the special procedures. The President is able to build consensus and make statements seeking solutions to specific problems – these are then adopted by the Council and given the same authority as regular resolutions.

Convention dictates the appointment of each new President is through informal diplomatic channels, with one agreed candidate proposed to the Council. This looked to continue for the 2021 presidency until an 11th hour bid by Bahrain (and later Uzbekistan) led to an unprecedented secret ballot, with Ambassador Khan receiving 29 of the 47 votes. The fact that the 2021 presidency was so fiercely contested demonstrates increasing recognition of the importance of this role.

What this means for the Pacific

While the context and nature of the presidency offers multiple opportunities for the Pacific, it also entails a significant degree of national and regional responsibility. Foremost, this is an opportunity to amplify Pacific voices within the Human Rights Council so as to raise awareness and stimulate action on priority human rights issues for the region, including on climate change. Prime Minister of Fiji, Honourable Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, highlighted this when he said, “(Fiji’s) leadership comes at a critical time for humanity, as the climate emergency threatens human rights on a global and generational scale.” The proposal for a Special Rapporteur on Climate Change is likely to come before the Council during Ambassador Khan’s tenure and she will be critical to whether such a role is established. Coinciding with Fiji’s presidency will be the United States’ re-engagement in the climate change agenda and its timely return to the Paris Agreement.

The Pacific is chronically under-represented on the global stage; consequently, our voices are seldom heard and our issues rarely prioritised. The presidency can bring the Pacific experiences, issues and expertise to the fore. An area which deserves highlighting is how the Pacific’s values and diverse cultures are an enabler of human rights. In our region, human rights are often seen as a foreign import, an externally imposed system and framework. However human rights are written into the constitutions and legislation of every Pacific island nation, including one which pre-dates the UN Declaration on Human Rights. The principles underpinning the international human rights system, such as dignity, respect, protection and community, are central to Pacific communities.

Contextualising human rights enhances community understanding and ownership. The aim of contextualisation is not to find a middle ground, but to harness the vast power of traditional knowledge to communicate human rights standards, find solutions to human rights issues, and generate local understanding and ownership of implementation. Contextualisation of human rights is difficult – hard conversations are necessary around how a society wishes to move forward. Fiji’s presidency has the opportunity to open up these conversations and, in doing so, unlock the vast potential of Pacific culture to enable and uphold international human rights and further demonstrate to the world what this region can offer as a leader in this field.

Looking ahead

Naturally, the presidency will place Fiji and its human rights record under the spotlight. Membership of the Council requires a state to uphold high human rights standards (General Assembly resolution 60/251) and the presidency further elevates that responsibility. Work undertaken as President in Geneva must not distract from domestic efforts to give effect to the rights contained within the human rights treaties and the constitution to which Fiji is bound. The ‘Human Rights in the Pacific: A Situational Analysis’ (SPC & OHCHR, 2021) documents areas of concern and the public will play close attention to how Fiji addresses these domestic matters during its tenure as President of the Council.

While the presidency is an historic occasion, of greater importance is the opportunity it presents to show the world that the recent achievements and commitments in the Pacific are not anomalies but an indication of the unique role the region can play when it comes to human rights.

Miles Young and Ashley Bowe, Director and Advisor, respectively, of the Human Rights & Social Development Division of the Pacific Community (SPC). SPC is an international development organisation owned and governed by its 26 members, including 22 Pacific island countries and territories. The HRSD Division supports SPC members in the areas of human rights, gender equality and social inclusion, youth and culture.


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