53rd Session of the Human Rights Council, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education

53rd Session of the Human Rights Council, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education
Special Rapporteur, Ms. Farida Shaheed | Photo Source: UN Web TV


Shruti Lal & V. Sivasankar

Team UN Geneva Researchers,

Global Human Rights Defence.

On the 27th of June 2023, at the 53rd  Session of the UN Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteur Ms. Farida Shaheed opened the Interactive Dialogue on the Right to Education (RTE). Poignantly stating that the “right to education is a right to learn", she highlighted that her report calls for a new social contract between the policymakers, educators, and learners to expand the vision of RTE and facilitate education as a public and societal endeavour for the common good. Noting the 25th anniversary of the mandate, Ms. Shaheed reiterated the need for strong government commitment, insisting that inclusion is not simply integration, and noting the polarisation of education, including critical race theory, gender theory, and historical facts as areas of deep concern. Citing some key challenges including exclusion, discrimination, and poor quality of education, Ms. Shaheed used the ongoing gender apartheid in Afghanistan, a Crime Against Humanity, to exemplify the impacts of a lack of education.

Commenting on her visit to UNESCO, Ms Shaheen recognised their clear alignment that education is a lifelong right, and that as the guardians of education, States have to contribute more through funding for this purpose. UNESCO’s reply underscored the need to invest in early childhood learning, and that education should not be brought down to schooling only - it applies across time and age. The next line of responsibility concerns the impact of climate change and how this has displaced learning, along with the blurring lines between privacy and data protection. UNESCO also stressed the need for a transformative approach to education and the need for widespread systemic reforms.

As States took the floor, the European Union highlighted the sad fact that over 244 million children are out of school globally, and reaffirmed their commitment to Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a specific focus on aiding women and children. Other countries such as Lithuania, Italy, and Portugal aligned themselves with this statement, along with France who poignantly stated that “education cannot wait”. They requested the renewal of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate for another three years, and highlighted education as being essential to the civil, cultural, social, and economic growth of every country.

Diving into the emerging issue of technology, Benin on behalf of Belgium and a group of 37 States pushed for the use of technology to combat global challenges, including by increasing accessibility to educational resources for all. Furthermore, the Irish delegation asked the Special Rapporteur for her suggestions on integrating technology into the developmental process to increase compliance with the 4As framework - making education available, accessible, acceptable, and adaptable. Other delegations such as India, Oman, and Thailand pushed for the use of technology to increase equity and advance competency based learning through “re-skilling and upskilling”. Specifically in a post COVID era, there was a common understanding in the room that the use of technology to advance the human right of education was a key strategy to be focused on. Nevertheless, there was also apt concern on the misuse of technology, misinformation, and disinformation, as States requested Ms. Shaheed to share her strategies on tackling these issues. Additionally, recognising that some countries can be often left behind due to the global digital divide, the delegation of the Ivory Coast on behalf of the African Group further stressed the need for education as a tool to combat other far reaching issues such as poverty. As building human capital is a priority for this region, other states such as Sierra Leone and Cameroon stressed upon national initiatives thus far, and termed education as a phenomenon to be a “cornerstone for human development”. The famous quote, “when you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation” was utilised by South Sudan, as the African region overall recognised the importance of SDG 4 - ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Throughout the debate, delegations focused on particular regional issues of high priority, including the ongoing war in Ukraine. Highlighting the issue of discrimination, Poland called attention to their intake of Ukrainian refugees who have been able to successfully continue their education as stipulated by the country's inclusive national laws. However, they also alleged the suppression of the use of the Polish language by Belarus and requested Ms. Shaheed for her recommendations to tackle this. In the same vein of discussion, Ukraine thanked the countries which have received refugees, as they welcomed the continuation of aid and collaboration with UNESCO. Conversely, the Russian Federation argued that contrary to the right to participate in educational life, Russian or Russian origin students in western countries have faced discrimination and Russophobia since the war broke out in February 2022. Apart from psychological pressure and bullying in schools, the refusal of medical, banking, and other basic services to the Russian diaspora prompted the delegation to request for further attention on the issue from the Special Rapporteur.

Turning to another region plagued by conflict, the Afghan delegation explained the suppression of basic human rights in the country since the takeover by the Taliban in 2021. As the only country in the world where secondary and tertiary education for women and girls is banned, the delegation brought to light many significant changes in curriculum that have intensified the radicalisation and spread of extremism in the region through the establishment of over 1000 Madrasahs. The delegation demanded that the international community fully commits to resolving this issue to effectively fulfil the right to education. The delegation from Bangladesh reiterated the global digital gap, particularly after COVID-19, and highlighted that commitment and implementation of the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur were a financial and infrastructural challenge for many countries including those categorised as least developed countries. Stressing on their initiatives to educate Rohingya refugees at camps in Cox Bazaar and Bashan Char, the country requested the international community’s assistance in dealing with this matter.

Lastly, a notable exchange of opinions was on the issue of Tibetan boarding schools established by the Chinese government, where children are forcibly separated from their parents often as young as 4 years old. As the delegation from the United States brought this issue up, the Chinese delegation responded by denying these allegations. They insisted that admission into these schools is voluntary and “reflects the wishes of the people”, as inequality in the right to education is against human rights. Additionally, they highlighted the structural inequalities in the United States where people from low income backgrounds have little to no access to lower and higher education while people of colour (including those of African descent) face stark racism.

Overall, delegations reaffirmed their governments’ commitments to upholding the right to education by discussing various new national initiatives and increased budgeting. The atmosphere was constructive with a tinge of criticism for one another as it was commonly recognised, with appreciation for the recommendations by the Special Rapporteur, that there is a long way to go in ensuring the right to education for all.

In her replies to certain questions posed by various delegates, Ms Shaheed addressed Armenia by requesting further information on questions regarding discrimination by Azerbaijan in the Lachin corridor. Tackling the grave issue of security within schools, she said she would dedicate another report to specifically focus on that, further noting the due diligence to be given to environmental and climate change and how it affects education. For the matter of financing, she recommended looking at spaces within States in the realm of taxation, and the need for transparency, equity, and inclusivity that ought to be upheld between public-private partnerships. However, when it came to the question of artificial intelligence, she noted that they are still trying to correctly understand the impact of it on education, although programmes will not include the marginalised.

Several international organisations made statements regarding the right to seek out information and the need for quality education. The Society for Threatened Peoples highlighted that education in China is used as a political tool to suppress Tibetan culture, as Tibetan children are forced into colonial style boarding schools. The World Jewish Congress affirmed the right to be safe in education, citing numerous instances of Jewish children in the United States and European countries being targets of anti-semitism. The Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) recommended covering sexual health and sexuality education as part of the curriculum, noting that Asia-Pacific countries do not give importance to this in their curricula. The vital role of mothers was compounded by Make Mothers Matter which pressed the need to underscore the part mothers play in social development, coaching, and homework, and that not every parent can engage in the same way. Other organisations that made statements were VIVAT International, Instituto de Desenvolvimento e Direitos Humanos (IDDH), International Catholic Child Bureau, Centre d'Études Juridiques Africaines (CEJA), Catholic International Education Office, and International Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education (OIDEL). 

In her closing statements, Ms Shaheed encouraged the Council by saying “sometimes we have to look at crises as opportunities”, and that we ought to rethink what the evolving right to education means today. She endorsed certain actions for States to keep in mind - negotiating with private companies that produce devices, investing in public spaces such as libraries and cheaper technology that is sufficient for education, filtering media content that contains hate speech and misinformation, guaranteeing media literacy, and training teachers efficiently. Moving beyond the realm of education, she asserted that, “education is not what happens in the classroom only”, and that learner-centric actions include medical facilities, transport, and social services, along with including parents, grandparents, and neighbours. Understanding that the right to life long learning is an evolving right, Ms. Shaheed recommended four general acts for States to consider. First, she recommended the renewal of a social contract for education between governments and their peoples. Secondly, in this rapidly changing world, she encouraged the rethinking of which aspects of the right to education must be reframed in the current social, political, and economic context. Next, a move from global to regional and country based analysis is what she considers essential to better understand both challenges and solutions within education. Lastly, the dissimilarity in monitoring mechanisms needs to be addressed. Addressing the council in a productive and solutions focused manner, she then moved on to discussing the vital link between education and culture, noting that these two are the key to the architecture of human rights. As the right to education is the right of children, and not their parents, it also involves sports, creative education, the sciences and more, and therefore they “must be read in synergy, not separately”, as culture is not static.