Human rights day, Nepal, right to education, sdg4, sustainable development goals, human rights-based approach, universal declaration of human rights
© 2017, ActionAid
Kate Moriarty - @Kate__Moriarty
8 December 2017

The 10th December, International Human Rights Day, is an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable vision of shared values and principles set out nearly 70 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948, UDHR). Among its provisions, Article 26 of the UDHR declares that ‘everyone has the right to education’, and that education ‘be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’.

Today there is cause for celebration but there is also cause for concern. Across the world, states have made gains in securing the right to education for many children and young people, however, for many millions this is still not the case. And many more adults are suffering the consequences of past failures, unable to read or write, their education denied and their opportunities limited.

As the UDHR enters its 70th year 264 million children and young people still do not have access to education and projections suggest that it will be another 70 years before the right to education is universally realised (UNESCO, 2015). The scale of violations against children and young people’s right to education does not end with access. Poor quality education has led to a global crisis in learning, leaving 617 million children and young people without even having learnt basic foundational skills and is often far from ‘child-centered, child-friendly and empowering’ as quality education should be (Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No.1, 2001).

Time to take stock

As we mark International Human Rights Day, it is time ‘take stock of the state of human rights today and reflect how each of us can stand up for rights, every day’ (OHCHR, 2017).

While we can all support this right, the call for reflection must first and foremost be directed at governments as they have legal obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil the right to education, they have the power and they know it is possible. What it takes is their political will.

Governments should not view the fulfillment of the right to education as a burden but as an asset. The positive impact of quality education is undeniable. It changes individual lives, the lives of their families and communities, and is the key to sustainable development: no country has ever achieved development without universalising education. ‘Education…is the key to unlocking other human rights’ (Katarina Tomasevski, former Special Rapporteur on the right to education and the founder of the Right to Education Initiative).

The Education 2030 agenda recognises that Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) is ‘rights-based and inspired by a humanistic vision of education and development, based on the principles of human rights....shared responsibility and accountability’ (UNESCO, 2015, p.6). The renewed political commitment set out in SDG 4 is an opportunity to ensure strong coherence between education policy and the right to education.

Rights should guide action on SDG 4

Rather than view the right to education as a rhetorical tool to make policy statements sound inclusive, human rights can and should be operationalised to build more equitable and effective education systems leading to strong learning outcomes.

Human rights treaties on the right to education are not passive instruments designed to remain only at the level of discourse but, as legally binding instruments, require action from states and should be central in the development of education services. Delivering on the promise of education requires a focus on the right to education, not in the background but in the foreground, driving policy formation, planning, and delivery of education services, from central government through to the classroom. Basing education policy—whether local, national, or global—on existing legal obligations to which all states have agreed helps focus efforts in a clear direction. To do so means adopting human rights-based approach to education (HRBA-E) to SDG 4. A HRBA-E offers a holistic approach to operationalise the right to education, respecting normative instruments and embedding them in the planning and delivery of education through the use of an easy to remember set principles, LEARN:

Legal standards of the right to education guide implementation

Empowering children through quality rights-based learning

Accountability of duty-bearers to fulfill their obligations for education is upheld

Respect for the participation of rights-holders in their own education is constant

Non-Discrimination for all children to ensure equitable, inclusive learning is central

The new sustainable development agenda commits to radical transformation to improve the lives of all people, with a promise to leave no one behind. However, committing promises to paper is meaningless unless the political will for immediate and sustained action and financial investment go hand-in-hand. It is not a cliché to say education holds the key to a better future. Without education, the vision for transforming our world committed to in 2015, will not be achieved. A rights-based approach is the best hope to achieve SDG4 and deliver on the promise of education.

On International Human Right Day let’s call on governments—and donors—to make the human right to quality education a universal reality by adopting a HRBA to education.

Let's stand up for the right to education, today and every day.

Let’s stand up for all rights, every day.


The LEARN principles are a reworking for education rights of the PANEL principles developed as a way breaking down what a human rights based approach means in practice. PANEL stands for Participation, Accountability, Non-Discrimination and Equality, Empowerment and Legality.


This blog was written by Kate Moriarty, adviser to the Right to Education Initiative, and draws on the text of a background paper she wrote titled ‘Achieving SDG4 through a Human Rights Based Approach to Education’ for the World Development Report 2018: LEARNING to Realize Education’s Promise.

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