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Protecting the right to education

15 March 2019
Global leaders adopt landmark Abidjan Principles
Experts from the University of Sydney Law School have joined internationally-renowned education and human rights authorities to establish a unified, global respect of liberties and dignity in education.

Over the last twenty years, while there has been an increase in the delivery of various forms of private involvement in education around the world, regulation has lagged behind.

The Abidjan Principles will serve as a new reference point for governments, educators and education providers on the respective roles and duties of states and private actors in education.

Developed by a Drafting Committee of esteemed representatives from South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, Chile, Russia, Israel and France, the document draws upon legally binding treaties, jurisprudence and other legal documents to outline in one source the rights to free, quality education, and the obligations of associated parties. 

Guiding Principles are becoming a popular form of law development at the international level, explained Associate Professor Jacqueline Mowbray from the University of Sydney Law School, and member of the Drafting Committee.

“The idea is that experts endorse the principles, which are then picked up by States and international organisations, and so become part of customary international law,” she said.

“In my view, one of the most exciting and important aspects of the Abidjan Principles is that they are the first international human rights instrument on this issue to state expressly that everyone has the right to free public education."
Associate Professor Jacqueline Mowbray

According to Associate Professor Mowbray, although this right can be drawn from existing treaty obligations, as interpreted in light of contemporary developments, the question of whether such a right really exists has remained controversial.

"These principles now clarify this point, and require states to dedicate resources to developing robust, quality public education systems," she said.

"The Principles also give guidance to States as to the steps that they must take to ensure that private actors in education do not affect enjoyment of the right to education by individuals.”

abidjan principles

Laying the ground work

From 2016 to 2019, a series of national, regional, thematic and online consultations were held to ensure the final document addressed the local, global and systematic realities, and impact, of privatising education. The process was facilitated by a secretariat made up of Amnesty International, the Equal Education Law Centre, the Global Initiative for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, and the Right to Education Initiative.

In a statement released by the organising conference, Professor Ann Skelton, chair of the Drafting Committee and UNESCO Chair of Education Law in Africa, said, “Until [now], those responsible for ensuring the right to education lacked clarity on what international human rights law says about private actor involvement in education, often leading to inadvertent and preventable adverse impacts.”

Associate Professor Mowbray says the Principles are likely to be particularly useful to developing countries, where the proliferation of for-profit providers of education services threatens equality of access to education, especially in circumstances where public education systems have limited resources. However, they will also be useful for developed countries, where disparities between private and public education systems risk entrenching inequality and leading to impoverished public education systems, she added.

Adoption of the Principles

The Principles were reviewed and adopted by 20 subject matter experts at a conference in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire last month. The expert committee included Associate Professor Mowbray, and Professor Ben Saul from the University of Sydney Law School.

Dr Kombou Boly Barry, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, was among the consulted experts, and said at the release of the document, “The Abidjan Principles are legally rigorous and tackle the very real challenges in providing inclusive free, quality public education, making them indispensable to any state that takes the right to education seriously.”

Representatives from more than 40 countries attended the adoption conference. The final text of the Abidjan Principles will be available from mid-March.