By: Christopher Gawronski



The International Day of Education is a new day of recognition on 24 January established by the UN General Assembly in Dec. 2018.1 UNESCO, the UN’s specialized agency for education, will facilitate the annual observance of this new day. This observance recognizes the human right to education, the benefit of education to individuals and societies, and the link between education and the achievement of many other human rights. Prior to declaring a day to recognize the importance of education generally, the UN has highlighted the importance of education in other more specific observances, such as International Literacy Day on 8 September, the UN Literacy Decade (2003-2012) and the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014).

Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) takes the occasion of this first International Day of Education to review the status of education as a human right and why it is so important. This article will first examine the benefits of education, including those that accrue to the individual as well as those enjoyed by society as a whole. Then, it will review the legal basis of education as a human right and some of the different aspects of that right. Finally, it will consider the sobering information that shows to what degree our human family is, or is not, fully enjoying the right to education.


Benefits of Education

Why a global focus on education? There are numerous positive impacts of increased education that merit global attention. Education has twin impacts of personal betterment and societal benefit. Specific benefits include the following2:

•    Poverty reduction. Increased education could lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty globally. Poverty often perpetuates itself by keeping children from attending school because their labour is needed to help support their families. To break this cycle, it is necessary to reduce child labour allowing more children to pursue education and thereby reduce the poverty that contributes to the child labour.

•    Greater equality. Education is a great equalizer, providing opportunities to individuals regardless of their gender, race, age or other factors. This is particularly important in reducing gender disparities. Currently, women comprise nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults. Also, the incidence of child marriage is reduced for every year of secondary education girls receive.

•    Health benefits. Increased educational attainment results in health benefits because individuals better understand issues related to nutrition, hygiene and medicine. Children of educated mothers are more likely to live longer and healthier lives, and the number of maternal deaths would decrease by two-thirds if all mothers completed primary education.

•    Environmental benefits. Education increases awareness and understanding of environmental issues. For example, higher education can give farmers an enhanced understanding of sustainable agricultural techniques and can provide laborers with the skills and knowledge needed to work in industries that utilize newer, greener technologies.

•    Higher incomes and economic growth. A more educated person has the potential to be employed in higher-paying jobs. In general, potential earnings increase up to 10% for each year of schooling, and up to 20% for women. Education also provides the opportunity to learn specialized skills needed to enter certain professions. As a result of higher incomes, the value of economic activity increases in more highly educated societies.

•    Reduced crime. Education can reduce crime by reducing poverty and providing opportunities to people. When individuals are desperate, the likelihood increases for them to engage in illegal activities simply to provide for basic needs. More education also reduces gender-based violence, which in turn allows more women and girls to seek an education.

•    Promotes peace. Education encourages critical thinking and increases understanding of other people and cultures.3 As a result, higher rates of secondary schooling have been linked to reduced risk of war.

It is clear that the benefits of education are many and they accrue to both students as individuals and society as a whole. Because of this broad-based benefit and the importance of education’s role in promoting greater equality and peace, it should not be surprising that education is a matter of global concern. In fact, it is considered to be a fundamental human right and critical to the full enjoyment of all human rights.


Education and Human Rights

Education as a Human Right

The right to education is articulated in many different human rights documents. It was first articulated in its modern form in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Article 26 of the UDHR begins with the simple declaration: “Everyone has the right to education.” It goes on to say that education is to be focused on an individual’s full development, and that it be directed at promoting respect for human rights, understanding among the peoples of the world, and peace among nations.

As a declaration, the UDHR is a statement of the values of the world community but is not binding on countries. However, all the elements of UDHR Article 26 were later incorporated into a binding treaty called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This Covenant, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and ratified by most countries,4 elaborates on the right to education in its Article 13. It repeats a key message from the UDHR that primary education must be free and compulsory, plus it requires that technical and higher education be equally available to all and should gradually be made available free of charge. Article 13 also encourages the continuous improvement of schooling systems and teaching conditions generally.

Other treaties reinforce the right to education and stress that it must be made available on a non-discriminatory basis for women, minorities, and persons with disabilities.5 The right to education also requires that deference be given to parents in choosing a school for their children, subject to minimum standards of education. Deference regarding style and content of education applies in a special way to indigenous communities as reflected in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This non-binding declaration says that indigenous communities “have the right to establish and control their own educational systems” in order to teach their own language and culture and use their own teaching and learning methods.6

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) contains the most extensive elaboration of the human right to education.7 Article 28 of the CRC focuses on the provision of education and requires state parties to encourage regular school attendance, ensure school discipline respects a child’s dignity, and encourages international cooperation aimed at improving access to scientific knowledge worldwide and “the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy.” Article 29 focuses on the content of education. In addition to reiterating that education be focused on a child’s full development and respect for human rights, it specifies that education should promote respect for the child’s own culture and language, respect for the values of other cultures, and respect for the natural environment. In sum, the CRC requires that education be directed to preparing a child to be a responsible member of a “free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality…, and friendship.”8 The CRC has been adopted by almost every country in the world.9

Education Enables Human Rights

Not only is education a stand-alone human right, it is an element of and a precursor to the protection and fulfilment of other human rights. For example, the right to education is an element of the right to freedom of expression. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights defines the freedom of expression as including the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas,” all of which are an integral part of the educational process. As with education, the right to freedom of expression must be protected on a non-discriminatory basis10 and has been specifically protected by treaties for certain vulnerable groups: children, migrant workers, and persons with disabilities.11

Since the right to education includes, as a fundamental purpose, promoting respect for all human rights, significant international attention has been focused on education about human rights. In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights declared that “human rights education, training and public information [are] essential for … fostering mutual understanding, tolerance and peace.”12 Based on a recommendation of the World Conference, the UN General Assembly declared an official Decade for Human Rights Education from 1995–2004 and appealed to countries to increase efforts to eradicate illiteracy  and direct education toward strengthening respect for human rights.13

At the conclusion of the decade, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the World Programme for Human Rights Education14 as an ongoing program to enhance human rights education in all sectors. The World Programme, coordinated by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), is currently in its third phase, which is focused on human rights training for journalists and other media professionals. Since most people hear about human rights issues through the media, such training is critical so that journalists can more accurately identify and report on human rights issues, including potential violations, thus supporting other human rights education efforts. The OHCHR is currently seeking input on what should be the focus of the fourth phase of the World Programme.15

On the recommendation of the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training in 2011. The Declaration elaborates on the principles and purpose behind human rights education and provides guidance on its content and methods of instruction. Importantly, the Declaration emphasizes that human rights education should not just be education about human rights, it should also be education “through” human rights (using methods that respect the rights of learners and educators) and education “for” human rights (empowering people to exercise their own rights and respect the rights of others).16 Thus, human rights are not simply a subject to be learned about, they are a set of principles that should inform the way education is accomplished and be reflected in how each one of us treats ourselves and each other in everyday life.


Current State of Human Right to Education

Education is not something that happens on its own; it requires action by countries and individuals. Today there are global targets for educational access and attainment that have been agreed internationally. Yet, in spite of the importance of education and the attention given to its delivery, the world is falling short of the targets.

The obligation of countries to provide education has been supported by numerous global gatherings to share ideas and establish expectations for the fulfilment of the right to education. UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) and its targets, the most recent global expectation for education, are the result of many extensive international discussions on education. SDG4 traces its origin back to the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand (1990), through follow-up conferences in Amman, Jordan (1996) and Dakar, Senegal (2000) resulting in the landmark Dakar Framework that shaped the incorporation of education into several of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. Since then, conferences in Muscat, Oman (2014) and Incheon, South Korea (2015) revisited the global commitment to education and produced recommendations for the updating of the MDGs into the Sustainable Development Goals, of which Goal 4 is specifically focused on education.

The most recent discussions occurred during the 2018 Global Education Meeting in Brussels just prior to the establishment of the International Day of Education. The Brussels meeting was convened to review global progress toward achievement of SDG4. Unfortunately, the attendees determined that despite some progress the world is unlikely to achieve the SDG4 targets by 2030. At the conclusion of the meeting, attendees noted numerous deficiencies, including the following:

•    750 million youth and adults are illiterate (two thirds are women)

•    262 million children are not attending school

•    58% of children and adolescents are unable to read or do basic mathematics

•    Only 18% of all adolescents in low-income countries complete secondary school.

The UN’s latest report on the SDGs also notes that, in spite of years of attention, deep disparities in education continue to exist along gender lines and between urban and rural locations. Significant investment in education infrastructure is still needed, especially in less developed countries where, for example, only 34% of primary schools had electricity in 2016. Less developed countries also need more trained teachers given that in some regions only 61% of teachers have been trained in primary education.


GICJ Position

Significant progress has been made in education around the world since the Millennium Development Goals were adopted in 2000. However, the world is falling well short of key goals like 100% literacy and equality of educational opportunities for all. In spite of its status as a basic human right and its demonstrated benefits for both individuals and societies, education still fails to receive sufficient resources and attention in many countries.

Geneva International Centre for Justice calls on all nations to prioritize education. Each country should critically evaluate the level of resources devoted to education and provide enough to exceed the recommended global minimum of 4% of national GDP or 15% of total national public expenditures. All countries must also commit to further enhancing the status of teaching as a profession by ensuring proper ongoing training for teachers and a level of compensation to teachers that recognizes the high value they provide for our societies. GICJ also calls on developed countries to share more resources with their less developed neighbours so as to improve the overall welfare of our global human family.

Every country must ensure education for all, especially vulnerable groups, and promote equal educational opportunities for both girls and boys. As 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, GICJ especially notes the importance of providing education for indigenous peoples and other minority groups in their mother tongue and in a way that respects their culture. Not only that, GICJ stresses the importance of the right of minority groups and parents to determine the manner and content of their children’s education within state-determined minimum educational standards. And GICJ reminds these groups that the exercise of this right also carries with it the responsibility to ensure that the education provided be focused on a student’s full development and promotes respect for the rights of others.

Education, especially starting at an early age, can have a significant positive impact on a child’s development and future opportunities. Indeed, education at any age is important to the personal growth of individuals as well as the overall growth of human society. For the benefit of us all, GICJ again reminds every country that it has an obligation to make sure that each person is able to receive an education that will promote that individual’s full development and promote respect for human rights, understanding among the peoples, and peace among nations.


Key words: Education, Human Rights, SDGs, International Days

All photos, source: UNESCO

1. G.A. Res. 73/25, International Day of Education (3 Dec. 2018).

2. The Benefits of Education, Global Partnership for Education, https://www.globalpartnership.org/education/the-benefits-of-education; Mehruba Chowdhury, Top 10 Benefits of Education Include Poverty Reduction, Borgen Magazine (13 Jan. 2018), https://www.borgenmagazine.com/top-10-benefits-of-education/.

3. Colleges and Collegiality – An International Imperative, UN Chronicle (Dec. 2013), https://unchronicle.un.org/article/colleges-and-collegiality-international-imperative. 

4. Since 1966, the ICESCR has been ratified by 169 countries.

5. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, art. 10, opened for signature 18 Dec. 1979; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, art. 5(e)(v), opened for signature 21 Dec. 1965; Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, art. 24, opened for signature 13 Dec. 2006 [hereinafter CRPD]. There is also a major non-treaty instrument that promotes non-discrimination in education for indigenous persons. G.A. Res. 61/295, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, art. 14(2) (13 Sep. 2007) [hereinafter UNDRIP].

6. UNDRIP, supra note 5, art. 14(1).

7. Convention on the Rights of the Child, arts. 28–29, opened for signature 20 Nov. 1989 [hereinafter CRC].

8. CRC, supra note 7, art. 29 1(d).

9. The CRC has 196 state parties and one signatory (United States) that has not yet ratified the treaty.

10. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 2(1), opened for signature 16 Dec. 1966.

11. CRC, supra note 7, art. 13; International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, art. 13(2), opened for signature 18 Dec. 1990; CRPD, supra note 5, art. 21.

12. Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, art. II, para. 78 (25 Jun. 1993), https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/vienna.aspx. 

13. G.A. Res. 49/184, United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (23 Dec. 1994).

14. G.A. Res. 59/113, World Programme for Human Rights Education (10 Dec. 2004).

15. Office of the High Commissioner, Fourth Phase of the World Programme for Human Rights Education – Consultation (ongoing), https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Education/Training/WPHRE/Fourthphase/Pages/FourthPhaseIndex.aspx. 

16. G.A. Res. 66/137, Annex, United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, art. 2, para. 2 (19 Dec. 2011).

17. Brussels Declaration (5 Dec. 2018), https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/2018-12-07_brussels_declaration.pdf. 

18. United Nations Statistics Division, The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2018: Overview, https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2018/overview/. 

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