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Right to Education

Rights at Stake
International and Regional Instruments of Protection and Promotion
National Protection and Service Agencies
Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials
Other Resources


The right to education is a fundamental human right. Every individual, irrespective of race, gender, nationality, ethnic or social origin, religion or political preference, age or disability, is entitled to a free elementary education. This right is explicitly stated in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948:

"Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. …" (Article 26)

Ensuring access to education is a precondition for full realization of the right to education. Without access, it is not possible to guarantee the right to education.

Quality of education is the other side of coin. Providing access to schools secures only one part of the right to education. Once in school, children can be subjected to indoctrination (e.g., in communist countries). As stated, in the UDHR:

"... Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among ... racial or religious groups. ..." (Article 26)

The right to education does not limit education to the primary or the first stage of basic education, or among children of a particular age range. The right to education is also not an end to itself, but an important tool in improving the quality of life. Education is key to economic development and the enjoyment of many other human rights. Education provides a means through which all people can become aware of their rights and responsibilities, which is an essential tool for achieving the goals of equality and peace.

Katerina Tomasevski, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, points out: "There is a large number of human rights problems, which cannot be solved unless the right to education is addressed as the key to unlock other human rights. Education operates as multiplier, enhancing the enjoyment of all individual rights, freedoms where the right to education is effectively guaranteed, while depriving people of the enjoyment of many rights and freedoms where the right to education is denied or violated."

As part of the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012), the Commission on Human Rights urged member states:

"(a)To give full effect to the right to education and to guarantee that this right is recognized and exercised without discrimination of any kind;
(b) To take all appropriate measures to eliminate obstacles limiting effective access to education, notably by girls, including pregnant girls, children living in rural areas, children belonging to minority groups, indigenous children, migrant children, refugee children, internally displaced children, children affected by armed conflicts, children with disabilities, children with human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and children deprived of their liberty." (Resolution 2002/23)

Thus, education about human rights is closely related to the right to education. International and regional human rights noted in various documents (declarations, resolutions, and conventions) emphasize that the knowledge of human rights should be a priority in education policies.

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Rights at Stake

The human right to education entitles every individual to:

1. Free and compulsory elementary education, and to readily available forms of secondary and higher education

2. Freedom from discrimination in all areas and levels of education, and to equal access to continuing education and vocational training

3. Information about health, nutrition, reproduction, and family planning

The human right to education is inextricably linked to other fundamental human rights ? rights that are universal, indivisible, interconnected, and interdependent including the right to:

  • Equality between men and women and to equal partnership in the family and society
  • Work and receive wages that contribute to an adequate standard of living
  • Equality between the boy-child and girl-child in all areas, including education, health, nutrition, and employment
  • Freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief
  • Freedom from discrimination in all areas and levels of education
  • Learn in one's own language
  • Education for children of migrant workers
  • Education for persons with disabilities and the freedom from discrimination in access to education
  • Share in the benefits of scientific progress

    Key Assistance Agencies

    Several agencies around the world are working to make education available to all:

    United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
    The main objective of UNESCO is to contribute to peace and security in the world by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science, culture, and communication. This will further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law, and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms that are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language, or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations. The United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012) aims to extend the use of literacy to those who do not currently have access to it. More than 861 million adults are in that position, and over 113 million children are not in school and therefore not in a position to learn to read or write either.

    United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
    Created by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 to help children after World War II in Europe, UNICEF was first known as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. In 1953, UNICEF became a permanent part of the United Nations system, its task being to help children living in poverty in developing countries. Its name was shortened to the United Nations Children's Fund, but it retained the acronym "UNICEF," by which it is known to this day.

    Believing in quality education for all, UNICEF helps children get the care and stimulation they need in the early years of life and encourages families to educate girls as well as boys. UNICEF supports young people, wherever they are, in making informed decisions about their own lives, and strives to build a world in which all children live in dignity and security. UNICEF's work is geared toward ensuring that all children realize their right to education, and that every child has the opportunity to develop to his or her full potential. Working with national governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), other United Nations agencies and private-sector partners, UNICEF protects children and their rights by providing services and supplies and by helping shape policy agendas and budgets in the best interests of children.

    World Bank
    Since it began funding education funding in 1963, the World Bank has provided over U.S. $30 billion in loans and credits. It currently finances 153 projects in 79 countries. Working closely with national governments, United Nations agencies, donors, NGOs, and other partners, the Bank helps developing countries in their efforts to reach the Education For All (EFA) goals of achieving universal primary education for all children by 2015 and reducing the education gap between boys and girls by 2005.

    International Labour Organization (ILO)
    The ILO is the UN specialized agency that seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights. Founded in 1919, it is the only surviving major creation of the Treaty of Versailles, which created the League of Nations. It became the first specialized agency of the UN. The ILO is known for its long-standing work on vocational training policy and structures, but it also has an active program in education. The ILO's specialty lies in its detailed technical knowledge of what constitutes good employment practices -- recruitment, career development, salaries, working conditions, and labor relations -- as the basis for education reform and quality. Since the 1950s, ILO's work has focused on researching, promoting, and sharing information on standards and best practices. It is important (though often overlooked in education sector work) because the salaries of educational personnel take up 60 to 95 percent of governments' annual expenditures on education; it is highest in developing countries.

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    International and Regional Instruments for Protection and Promotion

    International legal instruments take the form of a treaty (also called agreement, convention, or protocol) that binds the contracting states to the negotiated terms. When negotiations are completed, the text of a treaty is established as authentic and definitive and is "signed" by the representatives of states. A state can agree to be bound to a treaty in various ways. The most common are ratification or accession. A new treaty is ratified by those states that have negotiated the instrument. A state that has not participated in the negotiations may, at a later stage, accede to the treaty. The treaty enters into force, or becomes valid, when a pre-determined number of states have ratified or acceded to the treaty.

    When a state ratifies or accedes to a treaty, that state may make reservations to one or more articles of the treaty, unless reservations are prohibited by the treaty. Reservations may normally be withdrawn at any time. In some countries, international treaties take precedence over national law; in others a specific law may be required to give a ratified international treaty the force of a national law. Practically all states that have ratified or acceded to an international treaty must issue decrees, change existing laws, or introduce new legislation in order for the treaty to be fully effective on the national territory.

    The binding treaties can be used to force governments to respect the treaty provisions that are relevant for the right to education. The non-binding instruments, such as declarations and resolutions, can be used in relevant situations to embarrass governments by negative public exposure; governments who care about their international image may consequently adapt their policies.

    The following international instruments protect and promote the right to education:


    Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (Preamble, article 26)
    Education is defined as a right in itself, but the text of the UDHR also implies that education is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Education is seen as the process through which all citizens can become aware of their rights and responsibilities, so that peace as well as prosperity can be secured for all nations and peoples. The UDHR's definition of the role of education in and for human rights is reflected in later international standards.

    Convention (No. 111) Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation (1958) (article 3)
    The International Labour Organization (ILO)'s Convention Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation declares as its aim the promotion of "equality of opportunity and treatment in respect of employment and occupation, with a view to eliminating any discrimination in respect thereof," and calls upon education to assist in securing this. States are required to "enact such legislation and to promote such educational programmes as may be calculated to secure the acceptance and observance of this policy..." (Article 3)

    Convention Against Discrimination in Education (1960)
    UNESCO member states have adopted two treaties aimed at eliminating discrimination in education. These include the 1960 Convention against Discrimination in Education and the Protocol Instituting a Conciliation and Good Offices Commission to be responsible for seeking a settlement of any disputes which may arise between States Parties to the Convention against Discrimination in Education, which was adopted in 1962 and entered into force in 1968.

    International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (article 13)
    The main UN treaty on civil and political rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, defines education as "...directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms... [it] ...shall enable all persons to participate in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace..." (Article 13)

    Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979)
    The women's rights convention from 1979, known as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, and often abbreviated as CEDAW, obliges state parties to: "… take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure to them equal rights with men in the field of education and in particular to ensure, on the basis of equality of men and women: ... The elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education by encouraging coeducation and other types of education which will help to achieve this aim and, in particular, by the revision of textbooks and school programs and the adaptation of teaching methods…" (Article 10)

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    African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1981) (article 25)
    The main human rights instrument of the African Union guarantees the rights to human rights education in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights: " States Parties of the present Charter shall have the duty to promote and ensure through teaching, education and publication, the respect of the rights and freedoms contained in the present Charter and to see to it that these freedoms and rights as well as corresponding obligations and duties are understood..." (Article 25)



    The Council of Europe is a regional intergovernmental organization consisting of 45 countries. It aims to defend human rights, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. All members of the European Union also belong to the Council of Europe.

    The Council of Europe has adopted several declarations about the right to human rights education. In the Council of Europe's 1981 Declaration Regarding Intolerance - A Threat to Democracy, it states: "The Committee of the Council of Europe decides to promote an awareness of the requirements of human rights and the ensuing responsibilities in a democratic society, and to this end, in addition to human rights education, to encourage the creation in schools, from the primary level upwards, of a climate of active understanding of and respect for the qualities and culture of others..." (Paragraph IV.iii)

    The Council of Europe's 1982 Declaration on the Freedom of Expression and Information states: "The member states of the Council of Europe resolve to intensify their cooperation in order to promote, through teaching and education the effective exercise of the freedom of expression and information; [and] c) to promote the free flow of information, thus contributing to international understanding, a better knowledge of convictions and traditions, respect for the diversity of opinions and the mutual enrichment of cultures..." (Paragraph 3.b)

    And, the 1988 Declaration on the Equality of Women and Men of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe states: "The Council of Europe member states stress the importance for the achievement of the above-mentioned strategies of informing and educating people in suitable ways and making them realize the injustices and adverse effects of inequalities of rights, treatment and opportunities, together with the need for unrelenting vigilance in order to prevent or remedy any act or form of discrimination founded on sex..." (Paragraph 7)



    Protocol of San Salvador: Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1988) (article 13)
    This Additional Protocol was adopted in 1988 and entered into force on November 16, 1999. It focuses on the state's obligation to promote social, economic, and cultural human rights, including the right to education. It demonstrates that states may fulfill these obligations through enacting legislation, enforcing measures of protection, and refrain from discrimination.

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    National Protection and Service Agencies

    Under international human rights law governments are responsible for creating laws and service agencies to protect the right to education for all. Citizens can then use the legal system and other available mechanisms to prosecute individuals or groups who violate human rights. Nevertheless, the key requirement of the right to education, making primary education free, compulsory, and all-encompassing, has not been translated into reality. Despite provisions of international human rights treaties and the Convention on the Rights of the Child positing that every child has the right to education, about 120 million children don't have access to education; two-thirds of which are girls.

    Of note, the vast majority of children who have no access to school are poor, come from families that are heavily indebted, and live in countries at war or where warfare has recently ended.

    The table below illustrates that there are 44 countries where there is no explicit constitutional guarantee of the right to education, while there is such a guarantee in 142 countries.

    Strengthened and broadened commitments to gender equality have not yet made gender equality in education a reality. Getting girls into schools often does not occur because education as a single sector does not, on its own, generate sufficiently attractive incentives for the girls' parents. And, even if they are educated, girls cannot apply their learning to sustaining themselves and/or helping their parents. Schooling appears to have no benefit when women do not have access to employment, are precluded from becoming self employed, do not have a choice as to whether to marry or bear children, and have no opportunities for political representation.

    Children may also be excluded from schooling because they are indigenous, refugees, or because they don't have identity papers. In many countries non-citizens do not have a legally recognized right to education, excluding asylum seeking and refugee children.

    In addition, children with disabilities may be excluded from school, whatever the law says, because the buildings make their access impossible, there is no trained staff to work with them, and the environment is not welcoming. Providing education for children with disabilities may require increased costs. However, denials of education are rarely based on cost alone.

    The realization of right to education for children depends on creation of an effective conceptual framework, based on equal rights and the best interests of each child. Schools should adapt to each child rather than rejecting those labeled "difficult-to-educate." Educational policies, school curricula, teaching materials, any training program, should reflect and be developed in accordance with human right principles. Human rights concepts and values should be an integral part of all process of education. Any training or educational program, to be consistent with human rights principles should provide knowledge and information about human rights and also seek to develop attitude and behavior respectful of those rights. This should include the development of basic skills, such as critical thinking, communication skills, problem solving, and negotiation, as essential to the implementation of human rights standards. Because it is well known that children learn through observation rather than exhortation, the recognition of their rights in education, will greatly facilitate human rights education.

    As such, the orientation and contents of curricula and textbooks, the rights and duties of teachers, methods of instruction, protection against violence, the language of instruction, and enforcement of school discipline should build on and reflect human rights principles and values. Recognition of human rights in education is the necessary prerequisite for the teaching of human rights. Human rights cannot be taught and learned in an environment that goes against human rights.

    Human rights safeguards have been directed particularly at compulsory education because, as the United States Supreme Court has noted, attendance is involuntary, and thus compulsory education involves the coercive power of the State. Respect for parental freedom to have their children educated in accordance with their religious, moral or philosophical convictions has been affirmed in all general human rights treaties and is continuously subjected to litigation. The European Court of Human Rights has affirmed that human rights law "requires the State actively to respect parental convictions within the public schools," and the (former) European Commission on Human Rights added that the State's obligation to respect parental convictions "prohibits any indoctrination of pupils." International human rights law also obligates the State to respect the freedom of parents and communities to establish and operate schools. The rationale is, in the words of the Supreme Court of Spain, to remove the State's monopoly over education and protect educational pluralism.

    It is important to remember that children are not legally subjects of the right to education, but rather objects of agreements between their parents and their school.


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    Advocacy, Educational and Training Materials

    For advocates

    International Human Rights Standards and Education (Amnesty International)
    This document outlines the obligation governments have to implement education in and for human rights. It examines the changes seen since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 first established education as an essential component in human rights protection.

    Manual on Rights-based Education: Global Human Rights Requirements Made Simple (Katarina Tomasevski)
    The aim of this manual is to provide an easily-referenced,one-stop guide to rights-based education by explaining international human rights documents while drawing on numerous country-specific examples. It presents the key human rights as they relate to children, parents and governments, and the corresponding obligations, especially of governments, that must be met to fulfil those rights, while summarising and analysing the major human rights treaties and conventions from the perspective of education.

    Preventing Corruption in the Education System: A Practical Guide (Katharina L. Ochse)
    This practical guide addresses those responsible for development cooperation projects aiming to promote reform in the education sector.

    For policy makers

    A School for Children with Rights: the Significance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child for modern education policy (Thomas Hammarberg, UNICEF International Child Development Centre)
    This paper analyses, based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), eight areas for progressive reform in education: universal access, equal opportunities, the appropriate content of education, cultural roots and global values, new methods of learning, mutual respect, pupil participation, and the role of teachers, parents and the community.

    For educators

    Our Book of Child Rights (Human Rights Education Programme-Pakistan)
    This colourful picture book is based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is intended to be used by students and teachers as an introduction to children's rights and responsibilities.

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    Other Resources

    Courses and training opportunities about the right to education and human rights education

    Conversation about child labour and the right to education with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education

    Organisations that promote and protect the right to education



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    The Right to Education

    Key terms

    availability of education - ensuring free and compulsory education for all

    accessibility of education - education accessible to anyone irrespective of race, gender, nationality, ethnic or social origin (elimination of discrimination)

    acceptability of education - the quality of education should be guaranteed

    adaptability of education - education that responds and adapts to the best interests of
    each child


    "Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit" Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 26)

    This guide was developed by Fatmira Myteberi.

    Copyright © Human Rights Education Associates (HREA), 2003. All rights reserved.

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