Building peace in the minds of men and women

Right to Education - State obligations and responsibilities

International human rights law lays down obligations which States are bound to respect. By ratifying international human rights treaties, States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights.

Principal responsibility of States

States are the duty-bearers under international human rights law and hold the principal responsibility for the direct provision of the right to education in most circumstances.

Through ratification of international human rights treaties, Governments undertake to put into place domestic measures and legislation compatible with their treaty obligations and duties.

All countries in the world have ratified at least one treaty covering certain aspects of the right to education.

Content of States’ obligations concerning the Right to Education

Like all human rights, the right to education imposes three levels of obligation on States: to respect, protect and fulfil the right to education.

  • The obligation to respect requires States to avoid measures that hinder or prevent the enjoyment of the right to education.
  • The obligation to protect requires States to take measures that prevent third parties from interfering with the enjoyment of the right to education.
  • The obligation to fulfil means that States must take positive measures that enable and assist individuals and communities to enjoy the right to education.

This classification has been endorsed by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its General Comment No. 13 on the Right to Education. It provide a useful analytical framework to consider state obligations concerning the right to education.

The obligations related to each of the “essential features” of the right to education are categorised under four areas: availability, accessibility, acceptability, adaptability:

  • Educational institutions and facilities have to be available in sufficient quantity (buildings, sanitation facilities for both sexes, safe drinkable water, trained teachers receiving domestically competitive salaries, teaching materials);
  • Educational institutions have to be accessible to everyone, without discrimination, in law and in fact;
  • The form and substance of education have to be acceptable to both students and parents: relevant, culturally appropriate and of good quality;
  • Education has to be flexible, adaptable to the needs of changing societies and responding to the needs of students within their diverse social and cultural settings.

Main components of the Right to Education

States have mainly to:

  1. provide free and compulsory primary education;
  2. make secondary education, in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, generally available and accessible by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;
  3. make higher education equally accessible on the basis of individual capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;  
  4. encourage or intensify ‘fundamental education’ for individuals who have not received or completed primary education; 
  5. set minimum standards and improve the quality of education;
  6. develop the system of schools at all levels, establish an adequate fellowship system, and continuously improve the material conditions of teaching staff;
  7. rule out discriminations at all level of educational systems;
  8. guarantee freedom of choice

States are also bound by the principles of non-retrogression and by allocating the maximum of their available resources.