Legal Right to Free Education Grows Globally

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Expanded International Law Could Accelerate Progress

Legal Right to Free Education Grows Globally


In today’s rapidly changing world, access to free education is essential for sustainable development and for children to thrive. Although current international treaties only prioritize a right to free education at the primary level, more and more countries are recognizing that this is insufficient, and are enacting national laws to expand children’s right to free education at the pre-primary and secondary levels.

Since 2015, 16 countries have adopted laws to provide or expand free pre-primary education. Pre-primary education, which takes place during the early years when children’s brains are rapidly developing, has profound benefits for children’s long-term development. But for many low-income families, it is out of reach. When Azerbaijan adopted legislation providing three years of free pre-primary education, participation rates shot up from 25 percent to 83 percent in four years. Armenia and Uzbekistan also saw large increases in pre-primary participation after adopting laws to expand free pre-primary.

Sierra Leone is the latest country to expand free education for children. In 2018, the government launched an ambitious Free Quality School Education program to provide free education from pre-primary through secondary schools. Enrollment across all levels surged from 2 million students to 3.1 million by 2021, with the biggest gains from low-income families. On April 24, Sierra Leone enshrined free education in its national law. Sierra Leone children are now legally guaranteed 13 years of free schooling, from one year of pre-primary through secondary school.

A new UNESCO report finds that countries with laws guaranteeing free education have significantly higher rates of children in school. Political commitments to free education are simply not enough. As part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), all countries have agreed that by 2030 they will provide access to pre-primary education for all, and that all children will complete free secondary school education. But among the countries that have set specific education benchmarks as part of the SDGs, barely one in three is on track to achieve them.

The growing trend of national legislation to expand free education access is encouraging, but for the millions of children out of school, progress is too slow. International law more explicitly guaranteeing at least one year of free pre-primary and free secondary is needed to accelerate progress at the global level and turn political commitments into binding legal obligations.

Sierra Leone: Center Girls’ Voices in Education Reforms

New Law Should Require Greater Inclusion of Pregnant Girls, Young Mothers

The Sierra Leone government should prioritize the views and experiences of girls to advance its education reforms, Human Rights Watch and Purposeful said in a report released today. Despite the government’s important progress on access to education for girls, many girls who are pregnant, living in poverty, or in rural areas remain at risk of exclusion from school.

On April 24, 2023, Sierra Leone’s parliament enacted the Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act, 2023, which incorporates some elements of its groundbreaking 2021 National Policy on Radical Inclusion in Schools. The policy explicitly acknowledged that pregnant girls, young mothers, and other groups are systematically excluded from school. Until 2020, the government had banned pregnant girls from schools. Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in the world, and rates are highest among girls living in poverty.

“The new Education Act is a landmark moment for girls’ access to education in Sierra Leone, but the powerful social, cultural, and political factors that have kept pregnant girls out of school won’t change overnight,” said Chernor Bah, co-founder and co-CEO of Purposeful. “As the government celebrates on the national and global stage, we are optimistic but deeply cautious. We will join in those celebrations when we know, directly from girls themselves, that that they can enroll in school and complete their education without hindrance.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed girls and young women in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province for the report, and on Purposeful contributed surveys, interviews, and reporting based on their work to support and build girls’ power, in particular out-of-school girls, across the country.

Human Rights Watch and Purposeful examined the obstacles that many girls, in particular pregnant girls and young mothers, often face when trying to access education. These include discrimination based on pregnancy, stigma, bullying, poverty, and lack of access to childcare. Girls overwhelmingly said that they want to go to school and complete their education.

Poverty not only keeps girls out of school, but it can also be a factor in their early pregnancies. Numerous girls said they felt pressured or coerced into having sex with men who promised to provide them food, clothing, or other material support.

A 17-year-old girl, who gave birth when she was 14, said that she dropped out of school and got married after learning she was pregnant. “I was going to school, but I didn’t get [financial] help, so I decided to marry instead of being out on the streets,” she said. “I’m not happy because the man cannot provide everything … and I have no education or skill to help myself.”

Girls and young women also face barriers accessing contraception and accurate information about contraception.

When girls experience a supportive environment, they find it easier to remain in school, Human Rights Watch and Purposeful said. A 16-year-old girl in secondary school described the support of her counselor: “I was stressed going to school when pregnant. She encouraged me. She also shared her story of being pregnant when she was in school. [She] says she was chased away, and she encouraged me [to stay].”

In the past several years, the Sierra Leone government has stressed that education is a national priority. In August 2018, it introduced the Free Quality Education Programme, which aims to reduce financial barriers to accessing education, including abolishing school and exam fees, while also increasing access to school meals programs. It also significantly increased public spending on education.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child ensures the right to free and compulsory primary education. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child calls on countries to “take all appropriate measures to ensure that children who become pregnant before completing their education shall have an opportunity to continue their education on the basis of their individual ability.”

“To make good on its promises that all girls can go to school, Sierra Leone’s government will need too simultaneously address poverty, sexual and reproductive health, and exploitation risks,” said Regina Tamés deputy women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “To be effective, the government should listen closely to girls and civil society groups who support them to know firsthand what girls need to go to school, graduate, and use their education for brighter futures.”

World Court to hear Genocide Case Against Israel

South Africa Seeks Urgent Measures to Halt Abuses in Gaza

(The Hague) – The International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings on January 11 and 12, 2024, on genocide in Gaza will include the first formal response by Israel before an independent and impartial court to allegations of atrocities against the Palestinian people since October 7, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. On December 29, South Africa filed a case with the court alleging that Israel is violating the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

On January 2, Israeli officials confirmed that Israel would be represented at the ICJ to oppose the South African government’s application. South Africa contends that Israel has violated the Genocide Convention by committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, and by failing to prevent it, including by not holding senior Israeli officials and others accountable for their direct and public incitement to genocide. The case is not a criminal proceeding against individuals but seeks a legal determination of state responsibility for genocide.

“South Africa’s case is about Israel’s obligations under the Genocide Convention and puts its conduct in Gaza in sharp focus before the United Nations’ highest judicial body,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “South Africa has asked the World Court to issue urgent measures to protect Palestinians in Gaza who face catastrophic living conditions as a result of war crimes carried out by Israeli authorities.”

While the case may take several years to reach a final ruling, South Africa has asked the court to order provisional measures to protect the Palestinian people in Gaza from further harm, ensure Israel’s compliance with the Genocide Convention, and safeguard South Africa’s ability to have the case fairly adjudicated. South Africa has asked the ICJ to issue these measures “as a matter of extreme urgency,” saying that Palestinians in Gaza are in “urgent and severe need of the Court’s protection.” Arguments on the request for provisional measures are the subject of the January 11 and 12 hearings.

Among the provisional measures sought are for Israel to immediately suspend its military operations in Gaza and abide by its obligations under the Genocide Convention. South Africa also seeks measures to prevent the destruction and ensure the preservation of any evidence related to the underlying case – including by giving fact-finding missions, international mandates, and other bodies access to Gaza.

South Africa also asked the court to require Israel to report to it on steps taken to carry out a provisional measures order within a week of its issuance and then at regular intervals until the court issues its final ruling. In its oral arguments on January 11, South Africa could specifically ask the court to make Israel’s reports public.

In its application to the ICJ, South Africa says that Israel is killing Palestinians in Gaza in large numbers, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, imposing measures intended to prevent Palestinian births, and inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of Palestinians as a group. South Africa cited expulsions and mass displacement; deprivation of access to adequate food and water, medical care, shelter, clothes, hygiene, and sanitation; and the destruction of the fabric of Palestinian life in Gaza.

South Africa further contends that the “acts of genocide” should be placed in “the broader context of Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians during its 75-year-long apartheid, its 56-year-long belligerent occupation of Palestinian territory and its 16-year-long blockade of Gaza.”

South Africa contends that numerous statements by Israeli political and military officials amount to evidence of a clear intent to destroy Palestinians in Gaza as a group. It says that the “clear inference from the acts of the Israeli army on the ground…is that those genocidal statements and directives are being implemented against the Palestinian people.” South Africa’s application refers to several statements by UN experts who have warned of a risk of genocide.

The court will hear Israel’s formal response on January 12. Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, in a published statement on December 29, 2023, described South Africa’s application as “blood libel” and that the claim “lacks both a factual and a legal basis and constitutes despicable and contemptuous exploitation of the Court.” One media report said that the Israeli Foreign Ministry instructed its diplomats to press officials in their host countries to issue statements against South Africa’s case. The Israeli foreign minister has also specifically urged the United Kingdom to oppose South Africa’s application. The media reported on January 9 that UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said that he did not think the ICJ case was helpful.

The United States National Security Council spokesman described South Africa’s application as “meritless, counterproductive, and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever.” The US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said separately that Washington had not “at this point seen acts that constitute genocide” and that the ICJ case was “not a productive step at this time.”

A number of parties to the Genocide Convention have welcomed South Africa’s application including Bangladesh, Bolivia, Jordan, Malaysia, the Maldives, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, Namibia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation also issued a statement in support of the case. France’s UN ambassador in New York said France is a strong supporter of the ICJ and would back the court’s decisions. Governments should speak out in support of ICJ proceedings and publicly commit to supporting compliance with the court’s decisions, Human Rights Watch said.

Israeli authorities and Palestinian armed groups have committed serious abuses during the current hostilities. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups deliberately killed hundreds of civilians in Israel on October 7 and took more than 200 hostages. The Israeli government then cut electricity, fuel, food and water to Gaza’s population and severely curtailed life-saving humanitarian aid, all acts of collective punishment, a war crime. Israeli authorities are also using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in Gaza, which is also a war crime, Human Rights Watch said.

Past ICJ practice suggests that a decision on provisional measures could be delivered within weeks. Though such an order would be legally binding on Israel, it would not prejudge the merits of the allegations that Israel has violated the Genocide Convention. A provisional measures order is automatically sent to the UN Security Council pending a final decision in the case.

The ICJ is composed of 15 judges elected by the UN General Assembly and Security Council for nine-year terms. When two countries have a dispute and the court does not include their nationals on the bench, the governments can appoint ad-hoc judges to hear that specific matter. In this case, South Africa has appointed Dikgang Moseneke, former deputy chief justice of South Africa, and Israel has appointed Aharon Barak, a retired Israeli Supreme Court president, as ad-hoc judges.

South Africa, which ratified the Genocide Convention in 1998, brought its case under article 9 of the convention, which allows for disputes between parties to be submitted to the ICJ. The court previously confirmed that all member states of the convention have a duty to prevent and to punish genocide. Israel has been a party to the Genocide Convention since 1951.

South Africa together with Bangladesh, Bolivia, the Comoros, and Djibouti also referred the Palestine situation to the International Criminal Court prosecutor in November 2023. South Africa asked the prosecutor, Karim Khan, to investigate the crime of genocide among other grave abuses in Palestine with a view to charging the individuals responsible. Khan confirmed that his office has been conducting, since March 2021, an investigation into alleged atrocity crimes committed in Gaza and the West Bank since 2014, and that he has jurisdiction over crimes in the current hostilities between Israel and Palestinian armed groups that covers unlawful conduct by all parties. He visited Israel and Palestine in December.

In a related matter, in December 2022 the UN General Assembly requested an advisory opinion from the ICJ on the legal consequences of Israel’s prolonged occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The General Assembly first asked the ICJ for an advisory opinion related to the Occupied Palestinian Territory 20 years ago. In 2004, the ICJ’s advisory opinion found that the route of Israel’s separation barrier violated international law and that it should be dismantled. The December 2022 request is wider in scope. South Africa, among other countries, filed a written statement in the proceeding. The ICJ will convene public hearings on the request starting on February 19.

“How many more alarm bells have to ring and how many more civilians must unlawfully suffer or be killed before governments take action,” Jarrah said. “South Africa’s genocide case unlocks a legal process at the world’s highest court to credibly examine Israel’s conduct in Gaza in the hopes of curtailing further suffering.”

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