International legal instruments for the right to education

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Last update: May 4, 2022

The United Nations and UNESCO have initiated the majority of legal texts concerning education adopted since the end of World War II.

A large number of standard-setting instruments - conventions, declarations, recommendations, frameworks for action and charters - elaborated by UNESCO and the United Nations as well as those developed at regional level, provide a normative framework for the right to education which governments are expected to bring into effect through national legislation. They attest to the great importance Member States accord to normative action to realize this right.

They fall into two categories:

  • Hard law: Those having legally-binding force since they are adopted and ratified by the Member States (mainly conventions and treaties). They form the backbone of international law.
  • Soft law: Those which, though they do not have legally-binding force, embody a great political and moral authority (notably framework for actions, declarations and recommendations). 

For the list of international human rights instruments on the right to education see Chapter 2 of the Right to education handbook.

Right to education handbook
Right to Education Initiative

UNESCO Conventions and Recommendations

The UNESCO Constitution entrusts the Organization with building collaboration among nations to advance equality of educational opportunity for everyone.

Among the UNESCO standard-setting instruments in the field of education, the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) occupies a prominent place. It is the first normative instrument entirely dedicated to the right to education having binding force in international law.

More on the Convention against Discrimination in Education

The Convention was adopted, together with the UNESCO Recommendation against Discrimination in Education (1960), to take into account the difficulties that certain states might experience in ratifying the Convention.

Ratifying the Convention

In addition, the Protocol Instituting a Conciliation and Good offices Commission (1962) was adopted, creating a commission responsible for seeking the amicable settlement of any disputes which may arise between States Parties of the Convention, concerning its application or interpretation.

Other important UNESCO instruments which serve to further define and develop states’ responsibilities in the field of education include:

SDG 4 - Education 2030

Among the prominent soft law instruments regarding the right to education, the Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 4 set an ambitious and universal political agenda by aiming to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ by 2030. This political commitment provides a valuable opportunity to stress the role of education as a main driver of development and its contribution in achieving other Sustainable Development Goals.

Through a rights-based approach, the Agenda captures the multidimensional nature of the right to education. While not legally binding for Member States, it calls for a comprehensive and holistic approach to education, including the adoption of legislative and policy measures to effectively implement the SDG 4-Education 2030 agenda. As such, states’ extant legal obligations on the right to education, offer a solid foundation as well as guidance to achieve SDG 4.

UNESCO, with the mandate to lead and coordinate the Education 2030 agenda, supports states in adopting a rights-based approach to achieve the education goal.