Statement by H.E. Mr. Mohan Pieris, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations
at the UN Security Council Open Debate on Children and Armed Conflict
5th July 2023
Mr. President, as a responsible member of the international community, Sri Lanka fully endorses the Safe Schools Declaration, acknowledging the critical importance of protecting education and educational institutions during armed conflict. We make this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to implementing this framework to uphold the rights of children and educators, and we call on all parties involved in armed conflicts to desist from attacks on educational institutions.
The importance of the dissemination of education was put by Einstein succinctly when he said “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school.
Education therefore is a sine qua non even in times of conflict. Regrettably, the nature of warfare has tragically transformed schools, once safe havens for children, into deliberate targets. Innocent children face grave danger while traveling to and from educational institutions. This morning we were told about such happenings in Palestine. Moreover, schools and educational facilities have been requisitioned as military facilities and recruitment centers by combatant forces. Such actions lead to a decline in school attendance higher dropout rates, and diminished educational achievements, causing serious setbacks for children. Sri Lanka joins the majority of member states in committing to the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, safeguarding the civilian character of educational institutions.
While the Sri Lanka as a matter of policy and as prescribed by law does not recruit children into its armed forces, it acknowledges its obligations concerning child soldiers under international law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates the protection and care of children affected by armed conflict and promotes their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. Sri Lanka stands firm in its commitment to providing support and opportunities for these children, enabling them to positively contribute to society.
Mr President, Education cannot be protected if places of education are not safe from conflict. Education cannot be protected if those imparting knowledge and it’s beneficiaries suffer physical harm or the imminent danger of harm. This requires parties to a conflict exercising military restraint around school zones. It requires parties to a conflict in clear terms marking schools as safe zones, and adhering to terms of not using educational facilities as bases, barracks, detention centers, and weapons storage units thereby changing the character of the facility which does not provide the protection under IHL. The problem can be circumvented in a substantial manner with the availability of digital technology which allows students to connect with their teachers and learning material from the safety of their home, Educational technology could be a new focus of investment for governments, or multilateral organizations working in areas of conflict to pursue.
Sri Lanka faced the distressing issue of child soldiers recruited by a non-state group that terrorized the nation for decades. Following a complete end to such acts of terror in 2009, the government took on the significant responsibility of rehabilitating 594 child soldiers inducted by the non state actors and reuniting them with their families. The rehabilitation program emphasized not only formal education but also personal growth and development. Programs such as Scouting played a pivotal role in fostering teamwork, leadership, and character-building skills, aiding their reintegration into society. The government's unwavering commitment and compassion instilled hope, restored dignity, and provided a sense of belonging for these resilient young boys and girl Sri Lanka, through its national educational action plan, enhances the capacity of trainers in psychosocial support, empowering them to effectively provide guidance and counseling to affected children. By creating safe spaces for students to express themselves and seek help when needed, Sri Lanka fosters a nurturing environment for their overall well-being. Moreover, the nation embraces unique opportunities for war-affected children to participate in programs that boost their confidence, discover their talents, and pave the way for a brighter future.
Mr. President In the context of conflict, the prevailing humanitarian definition of childhood, rooted in international law, lacks cross- cultural grounding and limits diverse solutions to address complex social issues. A nuanced understanding is essential to craft appropriate and effective strategies. Embracing the right to education becomes the beacon of hope for war-torn children, empowering them to heal, learn, and reclaim their future. By investing in education, we can strive towards a just and promising tomorrow, enabling these resilient young individuals to overcome adversity and positively contribute to society.
Sri Lanka stands united with the international community in safeguarding education during armed conflict. Through endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, we commit to protecting educational institutions from attacks and refrain from their use for military purposes. We remain dedicated to rehabilitating and reintegrating former child soldiers, recognizing their resilience and potential. By embracing education as a pillar of hope and justice, we can empower war-affected children to create a brighter future for themselves and their nation.
I will conclude with that wonderful observation by Mandela when he said “ education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmers workers can become the president of a great nation and the children of great warriors in conflict become leaders. We must say it loud and clear to those engaged in conflict that our failure to protect our children and their means of education even in the course of a conflict can result in the destruction of a nation or even perhaps a civilization; that Education not conflict is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to our children who need to be prepared for it today.”