Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education

24th and 25th June

47th Session of the Human Rights Council 21 June to 15th July 2021.

ITEM 3 – Promotion and protection of all human rights civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.

By: Alicia Louise


During the 7th and 9th meeting of the 47th Session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Ms. Koumbou Boly Barry, presented her report during an interactive dialogue. The SR is responsible for addressing issues of availability, suitability, accessibility, and flexibility of education, from pre-school to higher levels, including in non-formal education systems or mechanisms. The position was created by the Commission on Human Rights in 1998, and the mandate was renewed by Resolution 44/3 in, July 2020.

Report of the Special Rapporteur

In her report, A/HRC/47/32, the SR calls for the right to education to be viewed as a cultural right. In so doing, each learner should have access to the cultural resources necessary to freely make sense of their identity, benefit from mutually rewarding relations over a lifetime, tackle the serious contemporary issues of today, and be able to have influence over and a stake in the development and sustainability of cultural resources. Non-discrimination and the eradication of segregation in schools on the basis of cultural identity or circumstance, was a clear and constant theme throughout her report.

The SR’s report brings to our attention the type of situations which directly or indirectly lead to the discrimination and exclusion of particular people groups in education. School grooming policies, gender, social stigma, poverty, and transport and language barriers, are just some of the factors that can exacerbate the non-enjoyment of the universal right to education and the cultural dimension.

At the heart of the SR’s report is the call for all stakeholders to honour the inclusion and diversity of individuals, whilst empowering each learner to participate in respectful, informed and critical debate. In some cases, this means educating students about topics we may find uncomfortable or ‘foreign’, as these can help students understand and accept their identity, and/or help them empathise with the experiences of others. The report advocates not for mere diversity ‘add-ons’ to the curriculum, or a few handouts to pupils facing hardship – rather, it calls for institutions to re-centre education around learners’ communities and different cultural contexts.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur

Opening Statements of the Special Rapporteur

Quoting the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, “Leave No One Behind”, the SR remarked that the right to education is a fully-fledged cultural right entitled to all people, in line with Article 5 of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. She implored all stakeholders to adopt this holistic approach concerning the right to education with the cultural dimension, starting in early childhood settings to university, and across formal and non-formal education settings.

Representative of South Africa

This means both public and private sector providers and the State, are to ensure the education system has sufficient resources and means to adapt to cultural shifts in circumstances and thought, whilst making space for all people to share, respect and explore their cultural identity.

In addition, the SR proposed that: existing cultural resources should be re-examined and held in greater regard, education systems in countries should operate with more freedom and authority from local communities, and participants should be able to devise observation methods to help monitor the implementation of these cultural rights. The SR closed by reiterating the duty of States to provide high-quality, free primary education, free (or progressively free) secondary and further education, and to regulate involvement in education by the private sector.

Participating Countries’ Statements

The vast majority of countries and civil society agreed with the SR’s thematic focus, and many sought her recommendations and advice on:

•    Further practical steps States can make to include parents and local communities, in their attempts to promote respect for cultural diversity in their educational provisions (Sierra Leone);

•    Enhancing the inclusion of ‘poverty’ as part of diversity education (Indonesia);

•    Understanding the right to education as a cultural right, that can contribute to eradicating violent extremism and creating a more peaceful society (Burkina Faso);

•    Understanding the  importance of the educational factor in constructing a sense of identity (Morocco);

•    Concrete steps that can be implemented to help overcome the heightened discrimination faced by girls and other vulnerable or marginalised groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has interfered with their enjoyment of the right to education (United States, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Croatia);

European Union: The representative agreed with the SR, but took the opportunity to remind stakeholders that while curriculums should be adaptable, this flexibility should not be used to undermine universal human rights principles, or inspire violence and discriminatory practices.

Egypt (also on behalf of the Arab Group): The representative notes that, students in developing parts of the region have been heavily impacted by full, or partial school closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the education system’s effectiveness and efficiency has been significantly impaired – slowing down progress towards the 2030 goal and SDG 4. The representative highlighted the League of Arab States’ efforts to support the cultural dimension to education through the establishment of the, Arab Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation, which aims to strengthen the pillars of cultural and intellectual unity among its Member States, and advance Arab culture to keep up with, and participate positively in, global civilisation.

Nigeria (also on behalf of the Geneva Call Group on Safe Schools Declaration): The representative emphasized that realising the right to education relies on safe access to school facilities. He reminds the SR that in some countries, physical safety is not guaranteed due to constant armed attacks on schools, and the military use of educational facilities in conflict zones. The representative states that attacks are leveraged to promote intolerance and exclusion, and work to restrict and deny the cultural diversity amongst others in education. The representative expressed that instead, education should be seen as a tool that safeguards young people from death, injury, exploitation and sexual or gender-based violence. To achieve safety in schools, the Group calls on States yet to adopt and implement the Safe Schools Declaration for adequate protection of schools, to do so.

Paraguay: The representative stated that genuine equitable progress won’t be possible if disproportionate development differences remain between countries.

Libya : The representative called for the intensification of efforts from the OHCHR, UNESCO, and  the international community, in their co-operation with Libya, so that capacity building, further technical assistance and training in education, can be developed in the context of Libya’s difficult circumstances. Thus, contributing to the marrying of national reconciliation with social justice, strengthening the rule of law and achieving democracy, stability and peace - and ultimately the realisation of the right to education for all.

Portugal: The representative shared Portugal’s success in engaging Roma youth in education through the assistance of socio-cultural mediators. They also highlighted programmes implemented nationally to target bullying, including homophobic and transphobic bullying, and to prevent dating violence.

Croatia: Meanwhile, Croatia’s representative expressed frustration at the difficulty of distance learning for Roma students, due to their adverse living conditions.

Czech Republic: The representative expressed the importance of actively encouraging and enabling young people to learn foreign languages, and travel abroad through government-funded mobility schemes, such as the ERASMUS programme. They explained how these programmes deepen students’ understanding of other cultures and foster cultural respect.

Armenia: The representative claimed that Azerbaijan is exploiting the education of its own students to cultivate anti-Armenian hatred through their politicians, educational institutions and media. They report that textbooks, and teachers, coach Azerbaijani children to view Armenians as genetic enemies.

Azerbaijan: Corroborating Armenia’s claim, the representative expressed deep concern over the racist and discriminative textbooks instilling hatred among school-children. They also stated that the armed conflict has obstructed the enjoyment of the right to education.

China: The representative exercised the right to reply, disagreeing with the SR’s inclusion of China as one of the countries that prohibits or severely restricts the use of minority mother tongues in education. The representative remarked that China’s laws respect and guarantee ethnic minorities’ right to receive education in their languages and scripts, which are widely used in bilingual education, the press, publications and more. China further expressed their concern over the systemic racial discrimination of African and Asian descendants in education resources.

Maldives: The representative asked the SR what methods of institutional training, small islands with limited resources can utilise towards these efforts.

Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of): The representative requests that the SR’s future thematic reports, investigate the impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on the enjoyment of the right to education.

Pakistan: The representative questioned the ‘logic and consequences of imposing alien cultural values’, such as education about sexual identities and orientations, ‘on local education’, as endorsed by some civil society organisations and Member States.

Georgia: The representative complained that restrictions imposed by Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia, were allowing ethnic Georgian children in the occupied territories to remain one of the most vulnerable groups; being denied the right to education in their mother tongue.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: The representative announced the recent introduction of two new milestones created with its G7 partners, to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs*;

1.    40 million more girls in school and;

2.    20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 by 2026 in low and middle-income countries.

*G7 Declaration on Girls’ Education: Recovering from COVID-19 and Unlocking Agenda 2030

The representative shared that girls’ education stands at the heart of the UK’s G7 presidency in 2021 and that they are co-hosting the Global Education Summit with Kenya, this July. The representative called for all Member States to support the Resolution it is leading with the UAE during this 47th Council session, which appeals for the elimination of barriers to the right to education and ensures all girls return to school and learning.

Russian Federation: The representative raised a point of order, opposing the approach of the SR to her functions, citing (in broad terms) contraventions of the provisions of Article 13 of the ICESCR. They opined that opening up the interpretation of the mandate of this special procedure, automatically reduces its effectiveness, and claimed the SR has little practical effect.

Ukraine:  The representative claimed that the Russian occupation and administration in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, prohibit people from crossing the check-point to attend educational institutions in the government-controlled territories. They further claimed that the Russian Federation recently closed several primary and vocational schools in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The representative also asked the SR to investigate the Russian Federation’s violation of the ICJ order, which demands Russia as the occupying power to ensure access to education in the Ukrainian language in occupied Crimea.

Yemen: The representative declared that education was the ‘first victim’ of the 2014 Coup d’état by the Houthi militia. Today, they claim school facilities are attacked daily, and sometimes bombed by this militia, which violates the right to education. The representative stated that educational programmes have been altered to spread hatred, and calls upon the Council to ensure accountability for these crimes.

Concluding Remarks of the Special Rapporteur:

The SR commended all States, who have highlighted the excellent efforts made to include the cultural dimension of education. She remarked that this is the path towards effective, efficient, strong and fair civilisations in our future world. She acknowledged that gaps in quality education, poor governance and accessibility problems predated COVID-19, and agrees with representatives that global and regional inequalities must be addressed.

Next, the SR asserted that we must include poverty, gender, disability, security, environmental issues amongst other contexts in our understanding of cultural diversity. She implored all countries to ensure national laws integrate the dimension, embedding it together with other rights, particularly cultural rights. In particular, the SR stressed the importance of listening to trade and teachers’ unions, and student and apprentices’ networks. Thus, ensuring improved governance, autonomy for teachers, and opportunities to enrich training with more open and tailored pedagogy. The SR affirmed the need to involve and support families with their child’s learning process, making space to consider how their values and beliefs may be included in education, in ways that still respect each individuals’ cultural diversity and other human rights.

Responding to China, the SR stated that it is not only China who needs to harness the principle of acceptance of all diversities; all countries must do so. She welcomed China to provide any new information to the contrary.

Finally, the SR confirmed she will be reporting on the digitalisation of the education system, exploring emerging paradigms in education, quality governance and accessibility.

Representative of Burkina Faso

Representative of Namibia

Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice

GICJ concurs with the full breadth of the SR’s report, and echoes statements that the cultural dimension of the right to education can only be enjoyed if the serious inequalities that exist between, and within, countries are addressed. Education plays an important role in maintaining good healthcare, strengthening economies, preventing violence and extremism, as well as enriching the human mind. In 2020, we witnessed the global distress inflicted by modern-day intolerance, racism and xenophobia. Hence, we agree with the SR that it is imperative for all stakeholders to provide accurate, inclusive and respectful education that is culturally relevant.

For learners and educators in armed conflicts, internally displaced, imprisoned or otherwise isolated, their specific circumstances must be given renewed attention with guarantees of safety and sufficient funding. Poverty rates have increased exponentially worldwide as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and government responses to it. The pandemic has also highlighted the plight of students who require reasonable accommodations in schools and their local communities, in order to achieve their full potential. We agree that States must work together and provide technical support to ensure the most vulnerable groups, including, children, persons with disabilities, and religious and ethnic minorities have access to school facilities. As part of these efforts, we echo the call of UNICEF to re-open schools where public health authorities have deemed it safe.

We agree with the SR that school and college policies must be cautious not to discriminate, exclude or prevent learners from accessing the best possible standard of education. We support the SR in stating that schools must not reject children (most of whom will be poor) from classrooms due to having incorrect uniform, as in some Jamaican schools today. Immutable characteristics such as hair texture and arrangement are to be celebrated and appreciated by schools, especially where they are a reflection of the racial, ethnic, religious or cultural identity of the learner. Any discrimination based on these, suggests the right to education is qualified, when it is inherently and indisputably substantive, i.e., it must not be interfered with. Decolonisation of education systems must take place in order to realise the right to education as universal and fundamental.

We welcome the SRs attempts to broaden civil society and States’ conceptualisation of poverty, language differences and the digital divide, as barriers to education for a significant proportion of the world’s children. Further, schools must take progressive steps in line with international and national law, to ensure that children have access to food during the course of their school day, so they can pay attention to their work and fully enjoy their right to education. We thank the SR for her interactive dialogue.

Justice, Human rights, Geneva, geneva4justice, GICJ, Geneva International Centre For Justice

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