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Salil Shetty is the Secretary General of Amnesty International. A long-term activist on poverty and justice, Salil Shetty leads the movement's worldwide work to end human rights violations. Prior to[…]

Amnesty International’s Salil Shetty on education as a fundamental human right.

 Salil Shetty: From an Amnesty International perspective I would say the biggest dream that we would have for education is to actually make the right to education a reality for every single child and adult in the world.  Because education is a fundamental human right and it affects every single other right, which is precisely why if you take the Economic Social Rights Covenant the right to education gets mentioned twice in two different articles.  Whereas for other economic social rights governments have the option of progressive realization, which means they can do it over time.  For the right to education they have been given only two years to come up with a clear delivery plan to make sure that compulsory and free education is available to every child of the world.

But the reality as we know it is that there's more than 250 million children who are out of school who are not really learning much and you can be sure that these numbers are severely underestimated.  Now, if you go to the underlying reason why this is happening you'd find in most contexts that the fundamental underlying problem is one of deep discrimination.  And that's really a human rights issue.  Whether it's discrimination against girls, against minorities, ethnic groups, disabled people, so multiple forms of discrimination and prejudice.  So my dream is that we tackle this discrimination in a very head on way.  Amnesty international has done various studies.  You take children in Afghanistan for example, kids are displaced don't get access to education.  Palestinian Arab children in Israel don't have access to education simply because of their anti-dissidents.

But it's not even just in poor countries.  In some of the richest countries, the Czech Republic for example, Roma children are discriminated and don't have access to education.  So yes, my dream is that every child doesn't suffer from discrimination.  Every adult who wants lifelong learning is not excluded from education.  Every human being has a right to education.  And this is a fundamental right and the world and the international community and all of us need to work towards that end.

 There's no question.  In fact the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which almost every government in the world has signed up to is clear that human rights, human dignity, human values need to be taught in schools and colleges.  Think of the situation in Syria for example today where we've had millions of people who have lost their lives or displaced, lost their livelihood.  Would this of happened if every individual in Syria had a respect for fairness, for equality, for the other?  And if you don't have this you might have education but what we're seeing in the world is increasing numbers of educated unemployed.  What are we going to have in the world tomorrow if every child and every individual doesn't respect other people for their intrinsic worth?  So yes, I think there's a lot of lip service, which is paid.  In fact the Convention on the Rights of the Child insists that this is included.  But in reality how many schools and how many universities and colleges deeply integrate human right education?

Amnesty International runs a global program called Human Rights Friendly Schools where it's fundamentally integrated into the way in which the school works.  It's not a matter of just giving a lecture on human rights because there's many lectures been given on civic responsibility human rights, but it has to be internalized, it has to be converted into lived experience.  And it's not in schools alone but in every household.  But absolutely the answer is it must be integrated and it must be done now.

Corruption affects every aspect of human life, it's very unfortunate.  But if you think about why corruption affects education and affects everything else, the fundamental problem in most societies, and this is particularly true in emerging and developing countries, but it's not exclusively a problem of developing countries but it's more prevalent in the poor countries.  And the reason why that is the case is because there is a complete lack of transparency and accountability.  So, if you want to tackle corruption, which is essential for us to make sure that every child has good quality education, you have to address the issue of transparency and accountability.  Without that there is no way of tackling corruption.  If you don't have rule of law, if you don't have a human rights, if you don't have a system that gives every individual equal access to justice, you're not going to have a solution to corruption.  And it is a deep disease.  It cuts at the very fundamental roots of quality education and quality social services, particularly for the poor and the marginalized.  So yes corruption is an endemic disease, but it can be tackled and it must be tackled.

So the private sector is obviously a very key actor in the way the world is developed.  They're becoming much more important than in the past in every domain of human life, including in education.  I was recently in Myanmar and Burma and you can imagine that this is now a new economy, a new country which is just opening up, new in the sense that it's new to opening up to the world.  And every single corporation in the world wants to be in Burma and Miramar today.  And I'm using this as a concrete example of what the private sector can do to respect human rights.  And this is a good example because the government there is very weak and you could easily have companies, particularly who are in the extractive industry looking for mineral going into that country and extracting the natural resources with little regard for human rights.

But the reality is that you may be able to do that in the short run but effectively what you're going to do is to destroy the social fabric of that country.  It's a deeply divided fractured country.  And if you don't respect human rights in that country, if the people who are living in the areas where the mineral resources are located don't feel that they're getting a fair share of the wealth you can be sure that there will be a destabilized Burma and Miramar in the future.  So what do we mean by human rights complaint private sector approach?  It's very simple.  There's no great rocket science about it.  

What Amnesty International would say is that there is a set of U.N. agreed human rights standards which businesses across the world have agreed to.  So what we'd expect every single business to do is to ensure that it is due diligence put in place, but this due diligence is put in place exante, not after the event but before the event.  So before you have any investments going in, before you have any business activity, every business leader today has to make sure that they do a check, a test to see what are the human rights implications or consequences of their investments of their operations.

So if you can think through this logically to it's end conclusion you can be sure that any potential negative consequences are take care of, just as you do with a health and safety, just as you do with environmental damage.  Will your actions cause humans rights damage?  So at least at a minimum it's a do no harm.  But ideally businesses should be actually promoting human rights, promoting the basic values that underlie human rights and I think they have a huge role to play there.