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18 Aug 2016

The Roles and Responsibilities of Non-State Actors: The Case of Education and Training by Ezgi Yildiz

By Ezgi Yildiz, Graduate Institute, Geneva, and NORRAG Intern.

 privschoolAs the separation between ‘public’ and ‘private’ is increasingly getting blurred, the state-centric international system has been grappling with accommodating the rise of private authority in all aspects of international politics and law. The presence of non-state actors is very much felt at the domestic level as well. It is now common place for non-state actors to deliver public goods and services which we used to receive mainly from governments, such as security, policing, health and education (see Cockayne, 2014; Warner et al., 2012).

Over the course of the last century, non-state actors have proliferated and assumed state-like functions (Weiss et al., 2013). A legitimate question to ask is whether they also hold state-like obligations towards right-holders, which are classically defined as duties to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. Although some academics (e.g. James, 2003) have argued that issuing obligations for non-state actors might spur political setbacks and legal uncertainty, which might encourage states to renege on their own responsibilities, the dominant voices in academic and policy circles think it is an idea whose time has come (Clapham, 2006; Sossoli, 2010). Non-state actors’ state-like functions should incur some obligations, which could be instrumental for regulating them better and holding them accountable in cases of misconduct towards right holders. This is precisely the reason why laying down obligations on non-state actors is particularly key for preventing holes in the legal protection system.

The field of education and training is one important area, in which various forms of non-state actors assume important tasks (e.g. see Patrinos et al., 2009). In this regard, one can observe at least three distinct constellations of actors, namely: (i) private companies and organizations offering professional education services for profit; (ii) profit or non-profit private schools offering basic or higher education and training services; and, (iii) armed groups that provide basic education services in territories under their control. This is admittedly a heterogeneous group of actors that have different operational principles and raisons d’être. However, they are all expected to play a crucial role in the facilitation of right to education, as a fundamental human right. This role at maximum requires them to provide education services and ensure the accessibility and quality of the services they provide when replacing traditional state functions (duty to protect and fulfil the right to education) and at minimum–which is mostly in the case of armed groups–to allow the continuation of education services in line with the principle of non-discrimination (duty to respect the right to education). Therefore understanding non-state actors’ (expected) roles and responsibilities is inextricably entangled in the quest for ensuring quality education and training services.

Reflecting upon their role and duties is also particularly important against the backdrop of ever increasing public-private partnerships in the field of education and training. This is one of the areas in which the dividing line between public and private sectors is even more blurred. Although states are recognized as having the primary obligation to ensure the realisation of the right to education, these partnerships often work on the basis of the principle of ‘shared but differentiated’ responsibility towards right holders. The linkage between the functions taken up by state and non-state actors requires us to reflect upon their obligations in tandem. This dimension has been brought up in the context of the debates and programs led by UNESCO and ILO on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), which serves as an interesting example to understand how state and non-state actors assume complementary functions as a part of tripartite governance structures. This is an important starting point to ponder the role of non-state actors as duty bearers and their obligations towards right holders.

That is why it would be useful to explore further non-state actors’ functions and obligations with a view to better understanding how stipulating obligations to them would allow scrutiny over their governance and operations (i.e. the curricula, accessibility, the method of delivery of education and the certification) and their misconduct (i.e. their failure to provide quality education, to ensure equal access to education or attempt to obstruct the delivery of education –which applies especially to armed groups). An essential part of this exercise involves bringing the right to education back into the debate, and underlining the existence of shared/overlapping obligations of non-state actors and states, namely “the concept of multiple duty bearers” (Anki Sjöberg, 2007). Questions that call for further attention are as follows: how can we mainstream the idea of shared/overlapping obligations and a right to education focused approach in policy circles? What is our shared responsibility in planting this idea that has a potential to blossom into governance solutions?

Ezgi Yildiz is a Turkish post-doctoral researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and was an intern at NORRAG in Spring 2016. Email:

Offline References

Cockayne, J (2014) Private Military and Security Companies. In: Andrew Clapham and Paola Gaeta (eds) The Oxford Handbook of International Law in Armed Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press.

Anki Sjöberg (2007) Volume III: Towards a Holistic Approach to Armed Non-State Actors? Geneva: Geneva Call and PSIO (Program for the Study of International Organizations)

James, S (2003) “Rights as Enforceable Claims,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 103.

Warner, E, Somer, J and Bongard, P (2012) “Armed Non-State Actors and Humanitarian Norms” in Benjamin Perrin (ed) Modern Warfare: Armed Groups, Private Militaries, Humanitarian Organizations, and the Law. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Weiss, T.G. et al. (2013) The Rise of Non-State Actors in Global Governance: Opportunities and Limitations. Broomfield, Colorado: One Earth Future.

Clapham, A (2006) “Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors in Conflict Situations.” International Review of the Red Cross 88(863).

Marco Sassoli M. (2010) “Involving Organized Armed Groups in the Development of the Law?” in Marco Odello and Gian Luca Beruto (eds) Non-State Actors and International Humanitarian Law- Organized Armed Groups: A Challenge for the 21st Century, 32nd Round Table on Current Issues of International Humanitarian Law Sanremo, 11-13 September 2009. Milano: FrancoAngeli.

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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