When, at the end of the Second World War, UNESCO was created in the wake of the International Commission of Intellectual Cooperation, it was based on the conviction that the intellectual and moral solidarity of humankind, and the respect for justice and human rights were essential for lasting peace.
The Constitution of the Organization states in its Article I as its first objective the contribution to maintaining “…peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
The central place of the universal values of human rights in UNESCO’s mandate explains its early commitment to the elaboration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1947 UNESCO created a committee on the theoretical bases of human rights which included leading intellectuals, philosophers and political scientists. The Committee’s purpose was to study the philosophical foundations of human rights in order to bring to the fore convergences between various cultures and schools of thought and thereby facilitate the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A questionnaire was sent out to politicians and scholars, such as Mohandas Gandhi or Aldous Huxley, soliciting their opinion on the idea of the Declaration. A main conclusion of the resulting report was that – despite cultural differences – Member States of the United Nations shared a commitment to “the right to live a life free from the haunting fear of poverty and insecurity”.
UNESCO was the first UN agency to acknowledge by a special resolution, immediately after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948, that it has clear implications in every field of the Organization’s activity – education, natural and social and human sciences, culture, and communication and information. At the same time, it undertook to make the Universal Declaration known as widely as possible through mass communication programs and teaching materials in schools, and to incorporate it into relevant UNESCO programmes.
Rights to everyone, everywhere
Within the UN system, five specific rights are under direct competence of UNESCO:
- Right to education — Article 26
Education is at the core of UNESCO’s mission and the SDGs. It is an empowering right, which allows children and adults to lift out of poverty and participate fully in society.
The right to education states that primary education should be free and compulsory. In advancing the articles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), curricula should strengthen respect for rights and fundamental freedoms.
As a key principle underpinning the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDG 4, the right to education is recognized as an essential tool to promote inclusion as well as economic, social and cultural development.
- Right to take part in cultural life — Article 27
Access to culture and the ability to enjoy it without fear of repercussion are necessary conditions for ensuring to the right to take part in cultural life.
Cultural life is manifested in everyday communication, expression, and traditions. Linguistic and religious minorities should not be denied their right to embrace the dimensions of cultural life for any reason.
- Right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress — Article 27
The right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits starts with inclusive learning that encourages participation in the generation of scientific research.
Those in marginalized communities should be encouraged to engage in scientific progress that is beneficial to both their community and the general public. In order to ensure that everyone benefits from scientific progress, information must be shared freely and innovations must be allowed to diffuse in societies without hinderance.
See also: UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers
- Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression — Article 19
The right to communicate is a fundamental human right that underpins the very essence of democracy, and it is a key factor in the fulfillment of other rights. States are prohibited from restricting speech and beliefs, and have an obligation in protecting the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
It “includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In the last 10 years, at least 827 journalists were killed. The figure shows the extent of the risk for expressing opinions and disseminating information.
- Right to Water and Sanitation
The right to drinking water and sanitation is essential for the full enjoyment of life. In 2010, the UN General Assembly officially recognized the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.
The Assembly expressed deep concern over the 884 million people who are without access to safe drinking water and the more than 2.6 billion who lacked access to basic sanitation — that is 40% of the world’s population. Lack of access to water kills more children annually than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.
To address the major human and environmental crises, UNESCO counts access to water and sanitation “as a pre-requisite for the realization of several other human rights, such as the rights to life, dignity, health, food, and an adequate standard of living, and education.”
See also : Human Rights Day, 10 December