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20 Feb 2018
Phoebe Shambaugh and Sarah French

Debating the Guiding Principles: Geneva consultations on the draft Human Rights Guiding Principles on State Obligations with regards to Private Involvement in Education

The Geneva consultation on the draft Human Rights Guiding Principles on State Obligations with regards to Private Involvement in Education was organised in collaboration with the Missions of Finland, France and Portugal, NORRAG and the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, together with the 5 organisations forming the secretariat for the Guiding Principles consultative process. The introductory section was livestreamed for broader viewing and is available at this link. More information on the project and next steps is available on the dedicated page for the Guiding Principles and the FAQs page. To participate in the broad public consultations online, contact a member of the Secretariat. Contact details are available on the Guiding Principles page.

This post was authored by Phoebe Shambaugh, Trainee at NORRAG and Sarah French, Human Rights and Social Services Campaigner at the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

At the Graduate Institute, Geneva, academics and representatives from states, civil society organisations, UN offices, human rights treaty bodies and the private sector gathered for the final in-person consultation on the draft Human Rights Guiding Principles on State Obligations with regards to Private Involvement in Education (the Guiding Principles). The Guiding Principles bring together existing legal human rights standards on the involvement of private actors in education to provide a normative framework for states, the private sector and civil society.

The consultation began with opening and framing remarks by Professor Gita Steiner-Khamsi, Director of NORRAG and Professor at Teachers College, Columbia and the Graduate Institute, followed by introductory words from the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Finland in Geneva, H.E. Terhi Hakala, and the Deputy Permanent Representative of France in Geneva, Mr François Gave. Dr Ann Skelton, the UNESCO Chair in Education Law in Africa and a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as Dr Koumbou Boly Barry, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, also spoke about the importance of the Guiding Principles in light of the significant growth of private actors in education globally. In her address, H.E. Terhi Hakala welcomed the Guiding Principles as an impetus to spur discussions among states, private actors, and other stakeholders on the possible consequences of commercialisation. Mr François Gave, in his address, reiterated support for the Guiding Principles, and recognised the need for a shared framework of sensible principles to help governments build capacity to implement these human rights standards. Professor Ann Skelton reaffirmed that the primary responsibility for the provision and quality of education lies with the state.

Dr Koumbou Boly Barry, speaking in a pre-recorded video from Dakar, highlighted the possibilities offered by the Guiding Principles as a tool contributing to monitoring, regulation and effectiveness of the private sector and emphasised that the value of the Guiding Principles would come from contextualisation and utility. She reminded participants that the goal of proceedings should be a tool that moves beyond the theoretical and is quickly operational for use by implementers.


Sylvain Aubry of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Delphine Dorsi of the Right to Education Initiative facilitated further discussions on the development and consultations process, as well as the motivations and legal foundations of the document. Participants discussed the legal framework and planned outcomes and impact of the Guiding Principles, with participants calling early attention to challenges related to the implementation.

In addition to the technicalities of language and legal framing which form the core of the consultations, this meeting highlighted the importance of drawing from research dealing with the core elements of the right to education. Such research, which has been conducted in recent years, provides a foundation for the rest of the document, including a discussion of the human rights framework and the scope and scale of diversity of private actors involved in education. Several participants emphasised that according to them the text needs to be framed and worded so that it that does not preclude the contributions brought by various kinds of private involvement.

A key area of discussion focused on the engagement of states, as well as other stakeholders, for implementation. Participants’ suggestions ranged from the adoption of policy and best practice language, to a call for ensuring that the Guiding Principles would act as a framework to empower states to regulate the private sector rather than as a prohibitive text, though some of these points were debated. The role of international organisations and financial institutions in development funding was also raised, with a clear recognition by participants that the obligations of these institutions need to be addressed within the framework.There was also discussion of the relationship between the Guiding Principles and other international agreements such as the SDGs.

The consultation illustrated a broad awareness of both the need for regulation and a framework for private actors involved in education, but also of the complexity of the issues at stake. The challenge for the Guiding Principles remains to address this complexity and diversity.

Regional and thematic consultations on the Guiding Principles have been ongoing since 2016, drawing input from civil society, states, human rights organisations, academia, experts in education and international human rights law and the private sector. This process of expert input and broad stakeholder consultations has been coordinated by Amnesty International, the Equal Education Law Centre, the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Initiative for Economic and Social Rights and the Right to Education Initiative.

The Geneva consultation marks the last in-person discussion before the launch of online public consultations later this year. A group of international experts will review all the feedback collected through the consultations and will refine and finalise the text. The Guiding Principles are projected to be adopted at the end of 2018.

For further information or to participate in the public consultations, contact a member of the Secretariat. Contact details are available on the Guiding Principles page.

For related discussions of the Guiding Principles, involvement by the private sector and the right to education broadly see:

Drafting guiding principles on state obligations concerning private schools: Lessons and strategic considerations from a rights perspective by Tom Lowenthal

NORRAG Special Issue 01: The Right to Education Movements and Policies: Promises and Realities, edited by Archana Mehendale and Rahul Mukhopadhyay

Seeing like the State, Calculating like a Business: Public-Private Partnerships in Education Revisited by Gita Steiner-Khamsi and Alexandra Draxler

Contribute: The NORRAG Blog provides a platform for debate and ideas exchange for education stakeholders. Therefore if you would like to contribute to the discussion by writing your own blog post please visit our dedicated contribute page for detailed instructions on how to submit.

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