By: Nay Alhelou, RightsViews Co-editor
In her first talk in an academic setting in the USA while serving in her current capacity, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Dr. Kombou Boly Barry, highlighted how education could help prevent mass atrocities. On October 15, she addressed students, teachers, and fellows at Columbia University and discussed the report she presented three days later to the United Nations.
Dr. Boly Barry was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016 to examine the right to education as an independent expert. She is mandated to conduct country visits, respond to allegations of violations of the right to education and promoting dialogue with governments, civil society and other actors.
According to the Special Rapporteur, schools can either be the space where intolerance is harnessed or where tolerance is promoted. In favor of the former, she remarked: “In a world where everybody is afraid of everybody else… education should be used as a tool to help us push for the values of humanity.”
Cultural diversity and acceptance are some such human values that Dr. Boly Barry argues should be promoted in schools. She noted that, according to her research and field work, in many colleges and schools around the world, teachers and students are being silenced and sent to prison – or even killed – for speaking up. Rather than being censored, Boly Barry believes that members of the education community should be given the chance to express themselves instead.
This is particularly relevant given that the role of education is a preventative one. The Special Rapporteur highlighted the need to help kids learn the core values of non-discrimination, equality and inclusivity before they become adults. When these values become part of children’s personalities, mass atrocities and gross human rights violations will occur less frequently. In addition, children should learn about genocides and mass atrocities that happened in the past, especially when these events have affected their cultures.
In response to a student who explained how Serbia continues to deny the existence of a mass atrocity in the country, Dr. Boly Barry said that “if you deny the history of a people, you are building the roots of war, violations and violence.”
Further, Dr. Boly Barry emphasized the role of open schools – schools where educational materials can be accessed by anyone – which allow parents to know what their children are learning in the classroom. She explained that if “students are blinded in their classrooms, they do not know what is happening in society.” Schools should follow curricula that not only promote the values of diversity and acceptance but that also bring theory and practice together, which also involves educating them on past histories of their nation and the world, as well as current events and debates.
In the discussion, it was also pointed out that schools established by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) already have a human rights curriculum. UNRWA students learn about human rights, healthy communication skills and peaceful conflict-resolution as well as tolerance. However, these students live in a reality that stands in contradiction to some of these ideals: for example, students in the West Bank and Gaza regularly face adversity and conflict and those living in refugee camps in Lebanon tend to suffer from dire socioeconomic conditions. Given these contradictions between an ideal world where human rights are fully enjoyed and a tough reality where some rights are abused, Dr. Boly Barry stressed that it is very important to contextualize what children are learning in school. Teachers can help their students make sense of what they are learning by using culturally-specific examples and discussing issues that affect their lives.
“If we forget the values of humanity in the process of education, we lose everything,” she said.
Dr. Boly Barry was a former Minister of Education in Burkina Faso and holds a PhD in Economic History. Her expertise in education, however, does not only stem from her professional and academic experiences but also from her personal experience as a woman coming from a nomadic background. Noting that only 2% of nomadic girls attend schools, the Special Rapporteur said that hers is an exceptional case but she hoped that through her mandate she can help people claim and enjoy their right to education.
As enshrined in Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to education not only contributes to the development of human personality, but it also enables people to effectively participate in society. As students and academics enjoying their right to education at a top university, we have a duty to critically engage in this learning environment and use our skills to make for better, culturally-richer and more tolerant societies.
This talk was co-sponsored by Columbia University’s Teachers College International and Comparative Education Program, the University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, and the Peace Education Network (PEN) of Teachers College.