Podium: Education is not yet a human right

Katarina Tomaoevski From a speech by the special rapporteur to the UN Commission on Human Rights to a London Oxfam meeting
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THE PROPORTION of children in the West is small, but their parents can secure funding for education by combining their political voice with paying tax. In Africa children constitute the majority of the population, but few of their parents pay tax because they earn too little. Children's right to education thus goes beyond national and regional borders and involves governments collectively.

There is, as yet, no international commitment to education as a fundamental right. Unicef has committed itself to the rights of the child. Britain has led the way in affirming a rights-based approach to international co-operation, but too few international commitments to education as a human right point to obstacles for attaining even rhetorical pledges. Many have been made for education, too few for the human right to education.

The first difference is easy to pinpoint. An international commitment to universal primary education for all the children of the world has been made at least once in every post-war decade. None has materialised. Each betrayed pledge was followed by a similar pledge, also betrayed.

The difference with a human rights approach is expressed in one single word - violation. The mobilising power of calling a betrayed pledge a human rights violation is immense, but it cannot be used unless governments have made, individually and collectively, a commitment to the human right to education. The commitment of shareholders in the World Bank will remain a major challenge.

The second difference is illustrated by the myth of partnership. Current development co-operation policies assume partnership between donor and recipient governments. But partnership does not really describe the relationship between a donor holding a chequebook and a government that desperately needs a cheque, nor does it fit a truism that you cannot fulfil human rights and be popular with governments.

Acknowledging human rights is a safeguard against abuse of power. To do this requires identification of those holding power and knowledge of mechanisms whereby power is abused, so as to expose and oppose abuse.

The third difference has nothing to do with financial obstacles to making education universal, which is often seen as the problem. Education itself can deny human rights. For example, abuse of education became institutionalised through re-education camps, where political dissidents were and still are brainwashed into conformity with the ideological fashion of the season.

The idea that education is good and that we need only to secure additional funds to provide more, could not be endorsed by the indigenous peoples of Latin America, who have experienced education as oppression.

A judgement about the contribution that education made to the genocide in Rwanda by creating and reinforcing mutual Hutu-Tutsi prejudices is pending. Anybody who tried to get a history textbook agreed between Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian authorities would realise that history is a political minefield. Using human rights safeguards to constrain the power of writing history books, from which the coming generations are going to learn their history, is as difficult as it is important.

The fourth difference necessitates probing into barriers that keep human rights out of education. Promoting education in Ethiopia could easily be seen to meet the criteria of tackling poverty and illiteracy, but in the process the status of teachers is in danger of being forgotten. It is too easy to define teachers as a production factor that should efficiently fabricate human capital, and forget that they are people with rights. Probing into their fate would reveal that the president of the Ethiopia Teachers' Association is serving a prison sentence, and that the previous one was killed.

We might, then, ask whether this chain of events has perhaps something to do with education. Further food for thought can be found in Turkey, where advocacy of free, continuous education in the mother tongue has been subsumed under the crime of terrorism.

We, as adults, must acknowledge that we routinely abuse our power over children. A visiting Martian would have great difficulty in accepting that we are committed to children's education, seeing that in one country we are expelling girls from school if they are wearing a headscarf, while in another we are expelling them from school unless they wear a headscarf!

Sadly, nobody would be able to persuade this visiting Martian that we really care about children's education.