The fundamental principles of non-discrimination, solidarity, equality of opportunity and treatment and universal access to education are enshrined in UNESCO’s Constitution. They underpin the right to education and provide the basis for the Organization’s legal action.
Non-discrimination in education means that it must be accessible to all, in law and in fact. Both UNESCO’s Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) embody the principle of non-discrimination. UNESCO adopted the Convention against Discrimination in Education in 1960 as part of its mission to realize ‘the ideal of equality of educational opportunity without regard to race, sex or any distinctions, economic or social.’
This Convention is a milestone being the first international treaty to extensively cover the right to education, proscribe any form of discrimination and provide the legal bases of the right to education. It prohibits discrimination in education based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition or birth.
In 2009, a UN Committee on human rights developed guidance on how this principle should be understood in the context of economic, social and cultural rights: General Comment 20 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Equality of opportunity and treatment
The principle of equality of opportunity and treatment is reflected in UNESCO’s mission to promote collaboration among nations to advance equality of educational opportunities. The Convention against Discrimination in Education aims to eliminate discrimination in education and promote equality of opportunity and treatment.
In the face of growing disparity, national level action to create equal education opportunities for all is crucial, and measures taken by Member States to implement the Convention contribute to this process and enforce the right to education as a fundamental human right.
In addition the Education 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goal 4 call for greater effort to ensure equity and inclusion as part of its aim to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ by 2030.
Addressing exclusion and overcoming persistent barriers in education requires reaching all learners, respecting their diverse needs, abilities and characteristics and eliminating all forms of discrimination in the learning environment. Inclusive education should guide policies and practices to achieve full equality of educational opportunities.
Universal access to education
Universal access to education free of discrimination and exclusion is the cornerstone of the right to education. This principle can be found in most of the education instruments elaborated by UNESCO, and realized through normative action.
The Education 2030 Agenda reiterates the importance of ensuring access to and completion of quality education for all children and youth and promoting lifelong opportunities for all. To fulfil the right to education, countries must ensure universal and equal access to equitable quality education and learning, which should be free and compulsory. Education should aim at the full development of the human personality and the promotion of understanding, tolerance, friendship and peace.
The principle of the ‘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.
In 2000, the global 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’. Shortage of funds should not jeopardize the educational opportunities of the billions of learners entitled to a quality education. This commitment was strengthened with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Agenda in 2015. The Incheon Declaration reaffirmed that the fundamental responsibility for implementing this agenda lies with governments and demands regional collaboration, cooperation, coordination and monitoring.