Parents and children have a right to a secular education under international human rights law. These are the main treaties in which these rights are enshrined.
International Human Rights Treaties
What are the main international human rights treaties? Founded in the aftermath of World War Two, the United Nations soon adopted the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was later strengthened by two legally binding treaties: the 1976 International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Together, these three UN documents became known as the International Bill of Human Rights. By then Europe in 1950 and America in 1969 had already adopted regional human rights treaties, followed later by Africa in 1981. Islamic states signed a rival treaty in Cairo in 1990 based on Sharia law, which limits rather than protects many human rights. The UN has also brokered other treaties dealing with specific human rights issues including children, women, race, genocide, slavery and torture. So today, thanks to an ongoing process first triggered by the horrors of World War Two, many but not all people have someplace to turn to if their own State denies them their human rights.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration is built on the principle that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. You have the right to life, liberty and security of person; to not be enslaved or tortured; to be held equal before the law; to not be arbitrarily arrested; to be presumed innocent until found guilty by a fair trial; to have your privacy and reputation protected; to have a nationality and to move freely between countries, including asylum from persecution; to marry and to own property; to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, expression and peaceful assembly; to democratic government based on free and fair elections; to fairly paid work, rest and leisure, social security and a basic standard of living; to health and education, including free elementary education; to take part in the cultural life of your community; and to have all of these rights protected by law, and only limited to protect the rights of others.
International Covenants on Human Rights
Over 160 States have ratified the two main UN treaties that give these rights the force of law (about seventy more have signed but not yet ratified them). Under the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, States must respect and ensure the rights to life, liberty and security of person, equality and procedural fairness in law, individual liberties and political participation. And under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States must take steps, to the maximum of their available resources, to progressively realise the rights to work, social security, family life, an adequate standard of living, health and education, and participation in cultural life. States can also sign optional protocols to these treaties, to abolish the death penalty or to allow individual citizens to complain directly about violations of either treaty. The treaties are monitored by UN Committees that regularly consider compliance reports from States, and sometimes consider complaints from individuals.
European Treaties on Human Rights
Two separate alliances of European States also protect human rights. The Council of Europe, which includes 47 States, runs the European Court of Human Rights. This Court enforces the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, as well as other treaties on specific human rights issues. Individual citizens can take a case to this Court, once they have exhausted domestic avenues, and the Court has the power to award them damages. The Court gives some leeway, called a margin of appreciation, to individual States in deciding how to protect and respect human rights. And the European Union, which includes 27 States, runs the European Court of Justice. This Court enforces the Charter of Fundamental Rights which became law as part of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. This Charter is binding on all EU institutions, as well as to member States when they are implementing EU law. While the Council of Europe and the European Union are separate bodies, they work together to promote European integration.
Secular Education and Human Rights Law
All of these treaties include clauses that balance the right to education with the right to freedom of religion and conscience. I will outline the clauses, and the test cases that have flowed from them, in a later post.