UN Report on the Right to Education and Atrocity Prevention

On October 18, 2019, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Dr. Koumbou Boly Barry, officially presented report A/74/243 to the General Assembly. Published in July, the report focuses on the manner in which the right to education contributes to the prevention of atrocity crimes and mass or grave violations of human rights. More specifically, the text recognizes that “education has a key role to play at all stages of prevention” and emphasizes the uniquely powerful potential it has during the “very early” phases of the conflict cycle.

A/74/243 functions as a continuation of the work being done by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights which highlights the important role that education plays in preventing gross human rights violations:

The report (…) is aimed at complementing the work of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights on the writing and teaching of history (A/68/296) and of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence (Special Rapporteur on transitional justice), in particular his 2017 report (A/72/523) and his joint study with the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide on the contribution of transitional justice to the prevention of gross violations and abuses of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law, including genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and their recurrence, who plead for more upstream prevention, including in the field of education (A/HRC/37/65).

Within this context, A/74/243 has emerged as the first report of its kind to stress the vital role that education plays in long-term prevention strategies. This is aligned with the emphasis that the Auschwitz Institute places on early-stage preventive strategies. When an investment is made in “upstream” prevention, there are not only more options available, but the options are both more effective and more efficient than those available during later phases of the conflict cycle.

Furthermore, the report emphasizes clear links to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which, for the first time, enumerates important human rights dimensions to the established right to education. For example, Sustainable Development Goal 4 – “Quality Education” – establishes the need to ensure that “…all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including… human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity…” by 2030.

To best inform the development of the report, the Special Rapporteur organized an event in early May of 2019 entitled “Prevention and reparation of atrocity crimes and the right to education” at United Nations headquarters in New York City. This brought together more than a dozen authorities from Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia who belong to international multilateral organizations (including the UN OSAPG, UNICEF, UNESCO, OHRHC, and UN WOMEN), civil society, and academia to discuss the content and parameters of the document. Among the invited experts, Dr. Clara Ramírez Barat, AIPR’s Director of Educational Policies lent her expertise to the two-day event.

In the report, the Special Rapporteur emphasizes the contribution that the right to education makes towards the creation of stable and resilient societies that can inhibit the development of mass atrocities. The ability to foster healthy “behavior[s], attitudes, and perceptions” among young people that promote peace, acceptance of the Other, and respect for cultural diversity, among other values, are identified as objectives of education that are especially effective in combatting the emergence of atrocity crimes. In addition to the role of schools in reflecting the diversity of the societies they exist within and promoting inclusiveness, the Special Rapporteur calls on schools to “include instruction on past violations and on the causes, dynamics and consequences of atrocity crimes.”

Beyond the positive ways in which the right to education can contribute to prevention, the report also touches upon other key preventive dynamics in which schools can contribute to the development of mass atrocities. This section begins by explaining how the widespread issue of underfunding can severely limit the degree to which schools are able to combat hate speech and “promote human rights, peace and social cohesion.” Next, the report discusses the ways that schools can function as a “tools for division” by reinforcing explicit and de facto social segregation as well as failing to reflect the diversity of contemporary societies, especially in the case of minority or otherwise marginalized groups. This section of the report concludes with an examination of the ways in which schools can be used to disseminate and strengthen propaganda efforts. These include maintaining an authoritarian social order, disseminating military ideologies, providing concentrated audiences for violent extremist recruiters, constructing social conceptions of “enemies” and Othering, and accommodating overt or “hidden” curricula that perpetuate “unspoken and implicit” damaging attitudes and understandings that facilitate the development of mass atrocities.

Dr. Clara Ramírez Barat, Director of the Auschwitz Institute’s Educational Policies Program, stressed the importance of the Special Rapporteur and the OHCHR’s Special Procedures that draw attention to this topic:

While many important efforts all over the world are being carried out by civil society organizations and research institutions to create programs that use education to empower young people to build more just and inclusive societies, there is still a lack of political will to tackle this topic with the importance it deserves. Despite the fact that world leaders are accustomed to speaking about the key role that education plays in promoting a more peaceful and secure world, in reality it is accorded neither the importance nor the funding that it needs. This report will make a contribution to drawing more attention to this topic while also providing ideas for measures that governments can implement to start making positive changes in this direction.