Education is not a privilege. It is a human right.

Education as a human right means:

  • the right to education is legally guaranteed for all without any discrimination
  • states have the obligation to protect, respect, and fulfil the right to education
  • there are ways to hold states accountable for violations or deprivations of the right to education

Human rights are inherent to all human beings, regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. They cannot be given or taken away.

Human rights are the foundation for freedom, justice and peace in the world.

They are formally and universally recognised by all countries in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948, UDHR). Since the adoption of the UDHR, many treaties have been adopted by states to reaffirm and guarantee these rights legally.

International human rights law sets out the obligations of states to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights for all. These obligations impose specific duties upon states, regardless of their political, economic, and cultural systems.

All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, 1993, para. 5).

Equality and non-discrimination are foundational and cross-cutting principles in international human rights law. This means that all human rights apply to everyone.


International human rights law guarantees the right to education. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted in 1948, proclaims in Article 26: 'everyone has the right to education'.

Since then, the right to education has been widely recognised and developed by a number of international normative instruments elaborated by the United Nations, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966, CESCR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989, CRC), and the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960, CADE).

The right to education has also been reaffirmed in other treaties covering specific groups (women and girls, persons with disabilities, migrants, refugees, Indigenous Peoples, etc.) and contexts (education during armed conflicts). It has also been incorporated into various regional treaties and enshrined as a right in the vast majority of national constitutions.

See our pages on international law and national implementation for more information.

Both individuals and society benefit from the right to education. It is fundamental for human, social, and economic development and a key element to achieving lasting peace and sustainable development. It is a powerful tool in developing the full potential of everyone and ensuring human dignity, and in promoting individual and collective wellbeing.

In brief:

  • it is an empowerment right
  • it lifts marginalised groups out of poverty
  • it is an indispensable means of realising other rights
  • it contributes to the full development of the human personality

For more details, see the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' General Comment 13 on the right to education (1999, para. 1).

The right to education encompasses both entitlements and freedoms, including the:

  • right to free and compulsory primary education

  • right to available and accessible secondary education (including technical and vocational education and training), made progressively free

  • right to equal access to higher education on the basis of capacity made progressively free

  • right to fundamental education for those who have not received or completed primary education

  • right to quality education both in public and private schools

  • freedom of parents to choose schools for their children which are in conformity with their religious and moral convictions

  • freedom of individuals and bodies to establish and direct education institutions in conformity with minimum standards established by the state

  • academic freedom of teachers and students

The 4As were developed by the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Katarina Tomaševski, and adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its General Comment 13 on the right to education (1999, para.6). To be a meaningful right, education in all its forms and at all levels shall exhibit these interrelated and essential features:

Available – Education is free and there is adequate infrastructure and trained teachers able to support the delivery of education.

Accessible – The education system is non-discriminatory and accessible to all, and positive steps are taken to include the most marginalised.

Acceptable – The content of education is relevant, non-discriminatory and culturally appropriate, and of quality; schools are safe and teachers are professional.

Adaptable – Education evolves with the changing needs of society and challenges inequalities, such as gender discrimination; education adapts to suit locally specific needs and contexts.

For more details see:

  • Primer 3 Human rights obligations: making education available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable (RTE, Katarina Tomaševski, 2001)

When a state has ratified a treaty that guarantees the right to education, it has obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil this right. Some obligations are immediate. Others are progressive.

Obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil:

  • respect: refrain from interfering with the enjoyment of the right (e.g., the state must respect the liberty of parents to choose schools for their children)
  • protect: prevent others from interfering with the enjoyment of the right usually through regulation and legal guarantees (e.g., the state must ensure that third parties, including parents, do not prevent girls from going to school)
  • fulfil: adopt appropriate measures towards the full realisation of the right to education (e.g., the state must take positive measures to ensure that education is culturally appropriate for minorities and indigenous peoples, and of good quality for all)

Immediate and progressive obligations:

As with other economic, social and cultural rights, the full realisation of the right to education can be hampered by a lack of resources and can be achieved only over a period of time, particularly for countries with fewer resources. This is the reason why some state obligations are progressive, for instance, the introduction of free secondary and higher education.

However, no matter how limited resources are, all states have immediate obligations to implement the following aspects of right to education:

  • ensure minimum core obligations to meet the essential levels of the right to education, which includes prohibiting discrimination in access to and in education, ensuring free and compulsory primary education for all, respecting the liberty of parents to choose schools for their children other than those established by public authorities, protecting the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions
  • take appropriate steps towards the full realisation of the right to education to the maximum of its available resources. A lack of resources cannot justify inaction or indefinite postponement of measures to implement the right to education. States must demonstrate they are making every effort to improve the enjoyment of the right to education, even when resources are scarce
  • not take retrogressive measures. This means that the state should not take backwards steps or adopt measures that will repeal existing guarantees of the right to education. For instance, introducing school fees in secondary education when it had formerly been free of charge would constitute a retrogressive measure

States have the primary duty to ensure the right to education. However, other actors play a key role in promoting and protecting this fundamental right.

According to international law, other actors have responsibilities in upholding the right to education:

  • the role of multilateral intergovernmental agencies, such as UNESCO, OHCHR, UNICEF, is of particular importance in relation to the realisation of the right to education in providing technical and financial assistance
  • international financial institutions should play greater attention to the protection of the right to education in their policies, credit agreements, structural adjustment programmes and measures taken in response to the debt crisis
  • civil society plays a crucial role in promoting the right to education and holding the state accountable for its obligations
  • parents have the responsibility to ensure that their children attend compulsory education. They cannot deny their children access to education

Violations of the right to education may occur through direct action of States parties (act of commission) or through their failure to take steps required by law (act of omission). Concrete examples are given in paragraph 59 of General Comment 13.

Whilst the vast majority of countries have ratified international treaties that recognise the full right to education, it is still denied to millions around the world due to lack of resources, capacity, and political will. There are still countries that have not integrated the right to education into their national constitution or provided the legislative and administrative frameworks to ensure that the right to education is realised in practice. Most of the children and adults who do not fully enjoy the right to education belong to the most deprived and marginalised groups of society which are often left behind in national policies.

  • raise awareness on the right to education. If individuals knows their rights they are empowered to claim them
  • monitor the implementation of the right to education and report regularly on deprivations and violations
  • advocate and campaign for the full implementation of the right to education, holding the state accountable
  • seek remedies when there are violations of the right to education

See our page on Using rights in practice for more details on what you can do.