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Leading Scholars Call for Global Treaty on Free Education

International Law Should Reflect Scientific Evidence

Students in a pre-primary school classroom in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 2021.  © 2021 Bede Sheppard / Human Rights Watch

Seventy eminent scholars, experts, and researchers from 30 countries have called for a new international treaty to recognize children’s rights to free early childhood education and free secondary education.

According to the experts, well-established scientific evidence shows “unequivocally” that education is foundational to children’s healthy development and lifelong prospects, but international law has not kept pace with research showing the benefits of education.

The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and subsequent treaties mandate that primary education be free and compulsory for all but are silent on early childhood education. They also stop short of requiring that secondary education be made available free, calling only on states to make it “available and accessible.”

After 70 years, the scholars say, “We believe it is time for that to change.”

The scholars call on all governments to support a new optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure recognition of the right to free early childhood education and free secondary education, alongside the existing explicit right to free and compulsory primary education.

The scholars note stark inequalities in access to education and children’s educational outcomes within and between countries, especially for children from disadvantaged and marginalized communities. The experts call for an “urgent renewed commitment” to education systems that will result in just and equitable outcomes for all children, and say it is essential this commitment be backed by a legal mandate to ensure its success.

The scholars’ call comes ahead of the 56th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, beginning on June 18, at which governments will likely consider a resolution led by Luxembourg, Sierra Leone, and the Dominican Republic to begin a process to create a protocol focused on the right to free education from pre-primary through secondary school.

Millions of children are missing out on schooling because of cost. A new global treaty mandating free education for all children from pre-primary through secondary would be transformative for children, families, and societies. According to the scholars, “Not only is education valuable in its own right, it has a multiplier effect—that is, education helps position children to secure their other rights during childhood and subsequently as adults. At a societal level, investing in education is any country’s most effective policy tool to ensure prosperity, social cohesion, and sustainable development.”

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