The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes in Article 26 that ‘Everyone has the right to education’, and that education ‘shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.’

The right to education has also been recognised by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; which also established that primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all, secondary and higher education shall be made generally available and accessible to all.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the treaty body in charge of monitoring State compliance with the ICESCR, has further explained that States have three kinds of obligations regarding the right to education: to respect, protect and fulfil. ‘The obligation to respect requires States parties to avoid measures that hinder or prevent the enjoyment of the right to education. The obligation to protect requires States parties to take measures that prevent third parties from interfering with the enjoyment of the right to education. The obligation to fulfil (facilitate) requires States to take positive measures that enable and assist individuals and communities to enjoy the right to education’

At a regional level, the African Charter on Human and Peoples´ Rights explicitly states in Article 17 the right to education. This right is also recognized in the Arab Charter on Human Rights, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and the Commonwealth of Independent States Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The right to education and the right to a healthy environment

The right to education is related to the right to a healthy environment in two different ways.

First, environmental education is fundamental for raising awareness and informing people about the responsibilities they have toward the environment, and how they should take care of it. Education is a way to empower people in environmental defence. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has confirmed that ‘Education has a vital role in empowering women, safeguarding children from exploitative and hazardous labour and sexual exploitation, promoting human rights and democracy, protecting the environment, and controlling population growth.’

The Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment affirm that States should respect, protect and fulfil human rights in order to ensure a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, including the fulfilment of the right to education. Principle 6 asserts that ‘States should provide for education and public awareness on environmental matters.’

Principle 14 of the Framework explains the necessary measures to overcome discrimination regarding environmental issues. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment has affirmed that,

‘States should develop environmental education, awareness and information programmes to overcome obstacles such as illiteracy, minority languages, distance from government agencies, and limited access to information technology, in order to ensure that everyone has effective access to such programmes and to environmental information in forms that are understandable to them.’

Second, education is related to the right to a healthy environment in terms of the affectations that environmental harm can have on the fulfilment of the right to education. Toxic waste, land, water and air pollution, and climate change, can affect educational facilities, as well as the capacity of children and adults to attend to them. As pointed out by UNICEF referring to a case in Kenya, ‘Environmental degradation from land use can decrease the availability of food and access to clean water and sanitation, while forced evictions may cause interruptions in education’. The Committee On The Rights Of The Child has explained further by affirming that ‘The loss of areas for subsistence farming or access to fishery resources has implications for children’s right to education and cultural rights, when traditional ways of life closely linked to the environment are eliminated.’

Furthermore, States are obligated to take measures that prevent environmental harm from interfering with the enjoyment of children´s right to education, as environmental degradation has serious consequences on children´s health. Children are one of the most vulnerable groups in the climate crisis as their health is easily affected by pollution, contamination, or the implications of droughts. These health issues keep children from school, interfering with their right to education.

The Convention against Discrimination in Education recognizes the importance of environmental education in the purpose of accomplishing 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. On this regard, it states,

‘DG4-Education 2030 must be seen within the broader context of development today. Education systems must be relevant and respond to rapidly changing labour markets, technological advances, urbanization, migration, political instability, environmental degradation, natural hazards and disasters, competition for natural resources, demographic challenges, increasing global unemployment, persistent poverty, widening inequality and expanding threats to peace and safety.’

Furthermore, according to a report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, ‘Recognition of the right to a healthy environment has been a catalyst for national laws related to environmental education in States including Armenia, Brazil, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea.’ It is of great importance that every country takes steps forward on environmental education issues.