Boost education to fight extremism and promote tolerance, says UN president

Greater access to schooling is one of General Assembly's top priorities

United Nations, New York, USA, June 04, 2019 - Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations and President elected of the General Assembly during the opening of the Living in the Age of Plastic a National Geographic exhibit at the UN Headquarters in New York. Photo by: Luiz Rampelotto/EuropaNewswire/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Education is the key priority of the UN as it seeks to fight extremism and promote security in some of the world's most troubled zones, the president of the UN General Assembly has told The National.

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, a former Nigerian ambassador to the UN who took up his post in September, said greater access was needed to education with strong curriculums.

Mr Muhammad-Bande said the problems of extremist activity were “still unfolding” in his region, with the rise of the Al Qaeda-linked Boko Haram and the wider conflict throughout the Sahel.

But he said any long-term solution should focus on delivering better education.

Teaching tolerance and respect is key to restoring peace and security to West Africa and the Sahel, Mr Muhammad-Bande said.

“When we deal with peace and security, it is within the context of how you can teach tolerance, how you think you can teach respect to others,” he said.

“A good education should help us to be more tolerant, more critical of any movement that pushes towards hate.

"We should also not conflate education with just skills. It should also still provide skills for people to find to put to good use.”

Mr Muhammad-Bande is in France to attend President Emmanuel Macron’s Paris Peace Forum, a gathering of 6,000 officials.

France leads the G5 task force that intervened to stabilise the African region after the spread of extremists.

It has the backing of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in moving to the next stage of the intervention, to restore good government and rebuild the economy.

“France and other countries have played an important role,” Mr Muhammad-Bande said.

“The framework is still emerging but the worry, of course, is shared because if you know the region very well, it's an open space.

"We keep asking the questions, 'What do borders mean? Where are the borders really?'

“That's why whatever happens in Sahel affects a larger areas. It's still an unfolding situation.”

He issued a plea for more support with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 deadline for the issues of climate change, economic development and equality of access to opportunity.

“We are not on target to achieve the target by 2030,” Mr Muhammad-Bande said. “Inclusion and climate action, these are very important and are indivisible.

“Climate action is hugely important. A lot of people underrate what it does because it is not so sudden. You may have to wait a 30-year length to see how communities are affected.”

Mr Muhammad-Bande said that for many communities among which he grew up, life was no longer sustainable.

“Where it is within 30 years, is not always clear,” he said. “It might not take one community the usual two minutes to get firewood if they have to cook food. It might take an hour and half now.

"Or you have to fetch water and the river is not there any more or the quality of the water isn’t adequate.”

Reforming the UN’s structure, in which more power rests with the Security Council, is in deadlock.

Mr Muhammad-Bande said the need for reforms were even more keenly felt by Nigeria which, like India and Brazil, should be better represented.

The General Assembly has lost influence, especially in regions such as the Middle East where decisions are mostly made by the Security Council.

That has implications for the long-running failure to give full representation to the State of Palestine.

“Palestine is one of the sole points of the organisation,” Mr Muhammad-Bande said. “No one is happy as far I am concerned.

"It's a problem we should find a solution to and for some reason we've been unable to and the situation is not improving.

"There is a clear need to find more creative ways to resolve it. It is an old issue but a very important one.”

And then there is the complex situation in Syria, where foreign interests wrestle for influence.

“For the presidency of the General Assembly and for any presidency, our role is to simply to try to be able to narrow gaps between countries and regions, and push for negotiations over violent conflict," Mr Muhammad-Bande said.

"The Syria issue is one such conflict. Collectively, we should try to find ways to address the problem of the conflict in Syria to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.

"The differences of opinion between countries that have some influence on the region has also made it more difficult for action to be taken by the council.”