Right to Education

Education as a human right means:

  • The right to education is guaranteed legally 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.

Every year, at its June session, the Human Rights Council adopts a Resolution on the Right to Education led by Portugal and sponsored by several states. The resolutions can be found on the United Nations Digital Library. The latest edition, from June 2019, can be found here.

What is the content of the right to education?

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

  • 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.

What guarantees education as a right?

International human rights law guarantees the right to education. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted in 1948, proclaims in its 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, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education.

The universality of the right to education has been reaffirmed in other treaties covering specific groups, such as for women and girls, persons with disabilities, migrants, refugees, indigenous people and those who may face other forms of discrimination, and in other contexts, such as in conflict zones. It has also been incorporated into various regional treaties and enshrined as a right in the vast majority of national constitutions.

International humanitarian law, which regulates the conduct of parties in armed conflicts, also includes provisions on the right to education and education more generally, for example, the protection of students, education staff and educational facilities.

Education is principally protected in international humanitarian law by the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols. The key obligations include:

  • Protection of civilian persons and objects including schools, teachers and students. This is underpinned by the ‘principle of distinction’, that is, there is a fundamental difference between civilian and military persons and objects, and only military persons and objects may be subject to direct attack. (Hospitals may never be used as military bases but in certain circumstances schools can.) (Articles 48 and 51, Additional Protocol 1; Article 13, Additional Protocol II.)
  • Protection of orphans and children separated from their families. This includes providing education to all those aged fifteen and below (Article 24, Geneva Convention IV).
  • During civilian internment, detaining powers shall ensure the education of children and young people either within internment or outside. Also, internees shall be granted the opportunity - through granting all possible facilities - to receive education, continue their studies, and take up new subjects, participate in sports and recreational activities (Article 94, Geneva Convention IV).
  • The special protection of children, this includes the obligation of parties to the conflict to provide children with the care and aid they require, whether because of their age or for any other reason. This can be construed to include appropriate education (Article 77, Additional Protocol I).
  • In times of belligerent occupation, occupying powers shall facilitate the working of educational institutions and ensure, where possible, that education is provided by persons of the learner’s own nationality, language and religion (Article 50' Geneva Convention IV).
  • In civil conflicts, children shall receive an education, including religious and moral education consistent with the religious and moral convictions of their parents or guardians (Article 4, Additional Protocol II).
  • It is also worth mentioning the International Safe Schools Declaration adopted in 2015, a non legally binding instruments, which includes the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use
  • International Safe Schools Declaration (2015) which includes the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use. There are currently (as of 16 June 2017) 66 endorsements of the Declaration

Furthermore, 161 countries have legal provisions for free primary and secondary school, and 149 countries safeguard the right to education in their constitution.  Various aspects of the right to education are protected in at least 42 international and regional instruments, including in seven of the nine core UN human rights treaties. In fact, every State has legally committed to the right to education, and “[a]ll States in the world ratified at least one treaty protecting the right to education” (Aubry and Dorsi, 2016, p.3). Despite this, numerous challenges remain in ensuring the right to education for all. As of 2018, less than 1 in 5 countries legally guaranteed 12 years of free and compulsory education due to formal and institutional barriers, as well as insufficient resources. In addition, the right to education is only a legally enforceable constitutional right in 107 States, or 55 per cent of states that include the right to education in their national constitutions.

Why is the right to education fundamental?

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 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.


This collection was developed with the support of Kate Moriarty, Senior Advisor, Strategic Engagement & Dialogue at INEE, and Delphine Dorsi, Executive Coordinator at Right to Education.

1 January 2019 Manual/Handbook/Guide Right to Education Initiative, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organziation (UNESCO)

Right to education handbook

This handbook was developed to guide action on ensuring full compliance with the right to education. The handbook will also be an important reference for those working towards the achievement of SDG4, by offering guidance on how to leverage legal commitment to the right to education as a strategic way to achieve this goal. 

1 January 2016 Manual/Handbook/Guide Right to Education Initiative

Guide to Monitoring the Right to Education

This Right to Education Monitoring Guide (‘Guide’) is an easy to use, step-by-step guide to monitoring problems in education, using a human rights-based approach. This Guide aims to demystify and simplify the monitoring process and ensure that the right to education remains the focus of your advocacy efforts.

31 May 2019 Manual/Handbook/Guide
Education Above All (EAA)
British Institute of International and Comparative Law

Protecting Education in Insecurity and Armed Conflict: An International Law Handbook

Given the continued attacks on education committed worldwide, and the importance of education, the protection of education in insecurity and armed conflict continues to deserve global attention, including from the legal community. The second edition of the Handbook incorporates all of the relevant developments which have occurred since 2012.

1 January 2017 Report Global Coalition to Protection Education from Attack (GCPEA)

​The Safe Schools Declaration: a Framework for Action

This Framework for Action seeks to provide governments with a non-exhaustive list of suggestions, recommendations, and examples that can assist them as they determine the appropriate way to implement the commitments made through endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration.