Armed Conflicts, Education, Education Cannot Wait. Future of Education is here, Human Rights

The Power of Humanity

United Nations Day Statement by Education Cannot Wait Executive Director

NEW YORK, Oct 24 2023 - Today, as we commemorate United Nations Day, more than 224 million children and adolescents are in need of quality education, and the hope, protection and opportunity it provides. Their numbers are increasing by the day. From Afghanistan and Sudan to Ukraine; from South Sudan, Latin America and across sub-Saharan Africa; and in Gaza, where 50% of the total population of 2.2 million are children under siege.

On United Nations Day, let us remember that the United Nations was born out of the unspeakable horror of World War II and the Holocaust. The world promised ‘never again’ for any human being. The preamble to the UN Charter in 1945 states:

“We, the Peoples of the United Nations determined

to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brough untold sorrow to humankind, and

to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of women and men and of nations large and small, and

to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained …”

On this United Nations Day, we must revive and act upon the promises enshrined in the UN Charter of 1945 and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. These eternal, universal principles were translated into international law and will never change – just as the Golden Rule has remained true throughout history. It is not our international law and values of humanity that need to change. It is we who must change.

We must change for the millions of young people in this world – the majority in the Global South – who have no access whatsoever to education and its protection, no access to mental health services for their battered souls, no chance of at least one hot school meal a day for their empty stomachs, and no protection from attacks against schools, students and teachers – all enshrined in International Humanitarian Law. We must change for the millions of children and adolescents to whom we made these promises. The world is failing them.

It is time to face the unacceptable horrors of today with our collective resolve for positive action and change. It is time to fully apply and respect Universal Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law and the UN Charter, not disregard them.

It is time to start serving as a role model for the younger generation who suffer because of the world’s collective fears and failures. We must show them that we have the capacity to show empathy for all of humanity, without any discrimination. This is what makes us civilized and humane.

We must deliver on the right to quality education and protection for the millions of girls and boys who today risk never experiencing the excited anticipation of attending their first day in school, who may never carry a backpack of books and pens, or ever access psycho-social services to deal with the dispossession and brutality in which they live.

Working within and around United Nations for 35 years, I believe that the United Nations has not failed, and we need it now more than ever. UN national and international staff are working with national and local partners and with civil society, risking their lives on a daily basis to alleviate human suffering. They do so amidst excruciating human pain in the most dangerous parts of the world.

Unacceptably, one in six people are estimated to be affected by conflict today and last year saw a 96% increase in conflict-related deaths. Forced displacement is also on the rise. In 2022, the number of people forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations grew by 21%, with over 108 million people displaced by the end of the year.

The climate crisis is making matters worse. As people are forced from their homes by floods, droughts and other extreme weather events, we see further massive disruptions in education, impacting negatively on progress to economic and social stability. On our current trajectory, climate change will force 140 million people from their homes by 2050, disrupting continuous access to education for millions of school-aged children each year.

Today, as we commemorate United Nations Day, we must stand up for 1.1 million Palestinian children in Gaza who acutely need us and we must support all the national and international staff in UNRWA, UNICEF, WFP, UNHCR and WHO, and other aid organizations, living and working amongst them as I write this.

Education Cannot Wait has invested in 44 lower-income, crisis-affected countries across the globe. These are countries who cannot manage the needs alone. ECW has already reached 9 million children and adolescents with quality education. We have done so based on the imperatives of humanity and impartiality – without discrimination as to race, ethnicity, gender or religion. We have done so with an absolute commitment to the UN Charter, just like all our colleagues in the UN system and its civil society partners.

Education is one of the most critical tools we have in our global efforts to end violent conflict, breaches of international law and the erosion of our humanity. Today, we stand at a crossroad. We have choices to make. Do we choose ‘the will to power’ or the ‘will to humanity’, or finally a configuration of both? This is the choice we have to make, now.

In all that we dream to possess and achieve,
let us seek to remove the “I” and the “me”.
In all that we yearn to become and to be,
let us seek to merge the “them and we”.
Because for all that we crave and all that we want
there is a greater ‘What shall be?’
Humanity set free.

Let me conclude by stressing that my modest poem is not simply a wishful ideal. It represents hardcore international law. The United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all related conventions, along with International Humanitarian Law, provides us with the roadmap.

We can no longer walk blindly.

In the final analysis, when all else falls away during our short lifespan on earth, true power can only be measured by our collective capacity to feel for – and serve – all of humanity.

That’s the power of humanity.

Yasmine Sherif


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