Fundamental Principles

The Constitution of UNESCO establishes certain fundamental principles such as: Principle of non-discrimination ; Equality of opportunity and treatment ; universal access to education   ; Principle of solidarity

These principles provide the basis and guidelines for the normative action of the Organization.

Principle of non-discrimination

Rice fields, children, Indonesia

©UNESCO/Malempré, G.
Rice fields, children, Indonesia

Education must be accessible to all, in law and in fact. The principle of non-discrimination is established in UNESCO’s Constitution (Article I, para 2 b). Guided by its mission to realize gradually “… the ideal of equality of educational opportunity without regard to race, sex or any distinctions, economic or social”, UNESCO adopted in 1960 the Convention against Discrimination in Education.

This Convention constitutes a milestone in providing the legal bases of the right to education. It was the first international treaty to be adopted concerning education as such. Other instruments elaborated by UNESCO and by the United Nations also establish this principle. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, proscribes any form of discrimination.

Under Article 1 of the Convention against Discrimination in Education, the term "discrimination" includes any distinction, exclusion, limitation or preference which, being based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition or birth, has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing equality of treatment in education.

Equality of opportunity and treatment

Children with disabilities have the right to education

©UNESCO /Olav A. Saltbones
Children with disabilities have the right to education

The first mention of 'equal opportunity' in an international treaty dealing with education was in the Preamble of UNESCO’s Constitution (‘the States Parties to this Constitution, believing in full and equal opportunities for education for all ...’).

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims something analogous but slightly different namely that ‘higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit’.

Both the Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) refer to the general principle of ‘equal opportunity’. In fact, the Convention of 1960 was designed in part to promote this principle (actually ‘equality of opportunity and treatment in the matter of education’) and specifically included article 4 to that effect.

The Convention on Technical and Vocational Education (1989) also recognizes the “right of equal access to technical and vocational educational”.

Universal access to education

Two young girls, Pakistan

©UNESCO/Akhtar Soomro
Two young girls, Pakistan

Universal access to education is the cornerstone of the right to education. This principle can be found in most of the instruments elaborated by UNESCO in the field of education, translated in the normative contents.

Major instruments:

Convention against Discrimination in Education, adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO, 14 December 1960

The World Declaration on Education for All Meeting Basic Learning Needs and Framework for Action to meet Basic Learning Needs: Guidelines for implementing the World Declaration on Education for All, adopted by the World Conference on Education for All, Jomtien, (Thailand), 9 March 1990.

The Recife Declaration of the E-9 Countries
, adopted by the E-9 Ministerial Review Meeting, Recife, Brazil, 2 February 2000.

The Dakar Framework for Action – Education for All: Meeting Our Collective Commitments, adopted by the World Education Forum (Dakar, Senegal, 28 April 2000).

Principle of solidarity

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (20 March 2004)

© UNESCO/Roger Dominique
International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (20 March 2004)

The principle of “intellectual and moral solidarity” of mankind, enshrined in UNESCO’s Constitution, is a source of strength for the realization of the right to education for all.

Already reflected in the World Declaration on Educational for All (1990), it underlies the spirit of the World Education Forum, where the international community affirmed that “no countries seriously committed to education for all will be thwarted in their achievement of this goal by a lack of resources”.

Back to top