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Slogans Won’t Save Palestine’s Trampled Right to Education, Minister Says

“Learning for Lasting Peace” was a theme of Unesco activities to mark the International Day of Education this year, but slogans won’t save Palestine’s right to education from the brutal reality it faces, says Mahmoud Abu Mwais, Palestine’s minister of higher education.

“We are most in need of a critical review of the entirety of beautiful slogans and narratives,” Abu Mwais said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media. “On the ground, the situation unveils shameful practices towards Palestine’s education sector, specifically in the Gaza Strip, where universities are bombed and academics are being targeted.”

Abu Mwais spoke ahead of the International Day of Education, observed on 24 January, which was dedicated this year to the crucial role education and teachers play in countering hate speech.

“If hatred starts with words, peace starts with education,” Unesco’s director general, Audrey Azoulay, said in a message prepared for the occasion. “What we learn changes how we view the world and influences how we treat others.”

While Abu Mwais did not challenge Unesco’s vision of “learning for lasting peace”, he said there was a contradiction between slogans and reality.

“We are most in need of a critical review of the entirety of beautiful slogans and narratives. On the ground, the situation unveils shameful practices towards Palestine’s education sector, specifically in the Gaza Strip, where universities are bombed and academics are being targeted.”

Mahmoud Abu Mwais, Palestine’s minister of higher education

“We support a just and comprehensive peace so that our generations can enjoy security and safety,” he said. “But the challenges ahead—the most prominent of which are the continued Israeli occupation, the targeting of infrastructure and educational personnel, and limited capabilities—make education fraught with risks that have been multiplied by the aggression.”

He added: “Once again, we call on Unesco and international institutions to assume their responsibilities to protect education and its institutions.”

Though Palestine has only “observer” status in the United Nations, it is a full member of Unesco. In November, the organisation adopted a draft resolution that demands the “immediate cessation of any attack on or further harm to civilians” in the Gaza Strip and Palestine, “especially children, women, youth, teachers, and education workers as well as schools, colleges, and universities.”

Abu Mwais called for organisations worldwide to join in condemning the destruction in Palestine and its impact on the right to education.

“It is inconceivable that the right to education remains between the hammer of the occupation and the anvil of the silence of the international community,” he said. “Palestinian higher education institutions are paying the price of the unjust siege imposed on our people.

“On International Day of Education, there must be a clear global position. This is the least to be done.” 

Education Rights Under Threat

Unesco’s “Learning for Lasting Peace” initiative touched on multiple threats to education, including “climate change, democratic erosion, persistent inequalities, growing discrimination, hate speech, violence, and conflict on a global scale.”

In a background document, Unesco said that the right to education is enshrined in multiple international treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Even so, some 250 million children and young people around the world cannot attend school and 763 million adults are illiterate.

Education offers children a ladder out of poverty to a promising future, it said, but “without inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong opportunities for all, countries will not succeed in achieving gender equality and breaking the cycle of poverty that is leaving millions of children, youth and adults behind.”

In the face of the growing list of threats to education and humanity, Unesco recently updated its 1974 recommendation on the centrality of education to promoting international understanding, cooperation and peace.

The newly revised document, referred to as the “Recommendation on Education for Peace, Human Rights and Sustainable Development”, sets standards and suggests priorities for how education can help achieve lasting peace and foster human development.

“It is inconceivable that the right to education remains between the hammer of the occupation and the anvil of the silence of the international community. … On International Day of Education, there must be a clear global position. This is the least to be done.” 

Mahmoud Abu Mwais

The new Recommendation, adopted in November after two years of discussion, affirms the important role that education plays in “empowering individuals, communities and societies to address global challenges and to take transformative action.”

Enthusiasm for Spreading Knowledge

The observance of International Day of Education and its focus on urging countries to guarantee the right to education for all students at all levels has drawn enthusiastic responses among Arab educators. 

Maha Abdulmajeed, a professor of mass communication at Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates, said the occasion was also a poignant moment for Arab academics.

“We need more and more research driven by curiosity and scientific passion, and in which researchers practise the true meaning of academic freedom,” Abdulmajeed told Al-Fanar Media. “We need more confidence and appreciation for Arab academic competencies in Arab universities. We need to enhance Arab scientific publishing alongside the trend towards international scientific publishing. We also need to prioritise education and science.”

 Abdulmajeed said she hoped Arab universities would open their doors to refugee students and urged refugee students not to lose hope. 

“Perhaps science is the safe and sure weapon to enable them to rebuild their countries,” she said. “I hope there will be voluntary initiatives from Arab researchers and academics, to spread scientific knowledge, each in their specialty, through free open platforms.”

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