Contemporary Issues Facing International Law and the Fundamental Right to Education in the Middle East

Contemporary Issues Facing International Law and the Fundamental Right to Education in the Middle East

By: Whitney Tolar


Photo: DFID – UK Department for International Development

The Elusiveness of the Right to Education

The Syrian refugee crisis and unrest in the middle east are amongst the most pressing issues which implicate international law and access to basic human rights. During these times of international violence and unrest, the human right of education often receives less attention. As a result, children living in the countries that are currently plagued bywith violence – such as Syria and Afghanistan – can fall behind in social, emotional, and intellectual development. International law has not done enough to confront the abdication of this fundamental human right in the middle east, neither in the context of protections for refugees nor in the regulation of violent conflict.

The international legal community must amplify efforts to remedy the lack of access to education during war and other crises in order to meet the standards promulgated by international treatiestreatises signed over the past six decades. Additionally, the legal community should address discrepancies in international humanitarian law in order to ensure that protection of education rights remains a top priority in the face of systematic violence.

The International Legal Framework of Education Rights

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December, 1948. Article 26 of the declaration states that “Everyone has a right to an education,” and that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights.” Since 1948, countries around the world have signed and ratified numerous additional treaties on education in order to supplement the original declaration of Article 26. The UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960), The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) are just a few of the special efforts that have been put in place to advance the human right to education. Additionally, Article 22 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states that signatories “shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education.”

The Modern Reality of Education Access in Zones of Conflict in the Middle East

Modern military practices infringe upon the universal right to education. With the arrival of armed forces in zones of conflict, children are often displaced from their schools entirely, effectively denying them their right to education. Even in instances when children are not displaced completely, they are often forced to study amongst armed men who have occupied their school buildings. These conditions essentially deprive children of their ability to learn and violate the description of education enumerated by Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sitting in a classroom with the threatening presence of armed militia infringes upon the notion that a quality education as required by the treaty should promote respect for human rights.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has continued to occupy schools for military purposes, forcing children out of schools or forcing children to attend school with the looming threat of violence. Military occupation of schools is not only practiced by insurgents like the Taliban, however – in 2015, the UN identified at least fifteen instances of military occupation of schools by Afghan National Security Forces. The Afghan government’s use of schools for military purposes puts children and teachers in serious danger, as insurgent groups increasingly target schools. Constant threats of violence at schools erode the right to education in Afghanistan, as violence dissuades teachers from coming to school to teach and students from coming to school to learn. Additionally, this practice of military occupation disproportionately aeffects girls and young women, as families are especially reluctant to send their daughters to school in the presence of armed men. In 2015, Afghanistan signed the Safe Schools Declaration, but so far the government has done little to address the disastrous impact military occupation of schools has on access to education.

At least half of children in Syria have no access to education in their home country. Tragically, for refugees, the right to education can be even more elusive once they have fled violent conflict or military occupation in their home countries. Aid given to refugees often lacks consideration of children’s need for accessible and quality education. In Turkey, for example, Syrian refugees have been consistently denied protections that would ensure access to education for their children. International law obligates Turkey to provide all children within its borders with free and compulsory primary education, but many Syrian refugee children have not set foot inside a school building for years, since fleeing the war with their families. Fortunately, Turkey has taken some steps to increase access to education for refugees, such as lifting a restriction that required children to produce a Turkish residency permit in order to attend school. However, Turkey must expandfurthering efforts efforts to comply with honor international standards that guarantee Syrian refugees equal educational rights. are necessary in order to protect the human right to education in Turkey.

The Failures of International Law International Law’s Failure to Protect the Right to Education

In theory iInternational humanitarian law does, technically, protects the right to education, and protects students and teachers during times of war and times of peace. In practice, however, these protections are not as evident. International law does not ban the use of schools for military purposes, and this can have a lasting negative impact on the civilians – namely children – whose countries are turned into war zones even long after the conflicts themselves have ended. Once a school is used for military purposes, even when it returns to operating as a school, enemies may still associate the school building with a military center during future conflicts. Thus, schools remain unsafe even after wars have technically ended. Only twelve countries have enacted special legislation banning the use of schools for military purposes, and a large number of the remaining countries have a history of using schools for military purposes during war times. Furthermore, enforcement of refugee law has not directly addressed the deprivation of education rights by countries accepting refugees. For example, the United Nations has not yet explicitly forced Turkey to comply with Article 22 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and Syrian refugee children are thereby continually denied their right to education. Neither has the UN forced Afghanistan to honor the standards promulgated by the Safe Schools Declaration, which it signed in 2015. In terms of application and enforcement, the right to education therefore does not seem to be a priority in international law.


To remedy the damaging effects that result from a failure to protect the human right to education, international law should be refocused to reflect the original goals of the conventions on education and the convention on refugee rights. Explicitly disallowing countries from using schools as military centers, for example, would improve educational access for children who are most at risk of being aeffected by violence. Additionally, this would help to sever the association between military violence and schools that is fostered by permitting school buildings to be used as military hubs. Thus, if and when refugees and other migrants fleeing violence are able to return to their home countries, a state of normalcy and safety would be protected in the realm of education. These protections would help to further the goals of education as originally stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Whitney is a JD candidate at Berkeley Law. She is a student contributor for Travaux.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.