Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Education and International Law

Education is a human right and should be guaranteed and protected for all people, at all times. However, in emergencies states often encounter difficulties in guaranteeing and protecting people’s human rights particularly the rights of members of already marginalised groups, such as persons with disabilities. This may be due to loss of power and the lawlessness that ensues, the destruction of infrastructure or because of the redirection of resources. In any case, emergencies lead to an increased likelihood that the right to education will be violated. It is therefore important that international law and the international community act to minimise and ameliorate the harmful effects of emergency situations.

In emergencies, human rights law applies in all contexts; people do not lose their human rights because of conflict, famine or natural disasters. However, depending on the nature of the emergency, different regimes of international law also apply. Vis-à-vis the right to education these are: international human rights law, international humanitarian law (or the law of armed conflict), international refugee law and international criminal law.

Click to read more about human rights and the Right to Education.

Treaties provide the strongest guarantee

Treaties are binding and create legal obligations whereas soft law only creates moral obligations for States. However, to be legally bound by a treaty, a State has to ratify it - its signature is not sufficient. The difference between ratification/accession and becoming a signatory is akin to the difference between soft law and hard law, by ratifying a treaty a State is consenting to being legally bound by a treaty and by signing, a State is signalling its intention to ratify, thus only morally obligating a State to comply. In addition, most multilateral treaties will require a certain number of States to ratify it before it enters into force. Once this threshold is met, the treaty is legally binding on all State parties. It is also important to note that States may lodge reservations or declarations, which can change the nature of the obligations on the State.

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to education has been reaffirmed in numerous treaties at international and regional level

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1948, states in Article 26: “Everyone has the right to education”. Since then, the right to education has been reaffirmed in various international treaties including:

  • UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960)
  • International Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)
  • International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (1966)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
  • Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their families (1990)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).

The right to education has also been recognised in ILO Conventions and international humanitarian law as well as in regional treaties.

Click to download a comprehensive collection of core international and regional legal instruments recognizing the right to education in crisis contexts: International Instruments - Right to Education.
(Right to Education Initiative)

Some treaties guarantee the right to education generally, others apply to specific groups or contexts

UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantee the right to education generally, that is, for all people. Other treaties apply to specific groups (children, women, persons with disabilities, refugees and migrant) or for specific contexts (for example, education in armed conflicts and education and child labour).

Human rights mechanisms monitor and protect the right to education as enshrined in treaties

Most of the time, human rights bodies attached to these treaties monitor their implementation through reporting mechanisms and complaint mechanisms in cases of violations. They are also responsible for providing authoritative interpretations – and so better understanding – of treaties’ provisions through the adoption of General Comments, Recommendations to States and decisions.


The content on this page was developed in collaboration with the Right to Education Initiative.