One of the most important human rights cases in the world may have started this week

Human rights law is inherently international.

This is true not only because of international agreements that codify rights to which ever person is entitled.  It is also true because the authors of such agreements and courts that resolve disputes about the relationship between citizen and state look to each other, across national boundaries, are influenced by each other and have done for a very long time.

Arguably the most important human rights case in the US since 1945 was Brown v Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court unanimously decided that segregation of black and white children between different schools was unconstitutional.  Segregation is at odds with the right to equality and, in particular, equal access to the public facilities of the state.

An end to segregation in the most powerful country in the world undoubtedly influenced other countries in the years and decades afterwards.  A few years after Brown the UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education was created.

A continuing problem in many parts of the western world is that while some children receive an excellent education, many children do not.  Some children receive far short of a proper education.  This week, a case has been brought in the US federal court that in many ways is the next chapter of Brown but will benefit poor children of every ethnicity.

A 133 page complaint argues that there is a constitutional right to literacy and that in Detroit some schools are so bad that this right is violated.  In one school there are classrooms with no book or with no teachers – older students are sent to teach younger students in places of professional teachers. Only 2.2% of the students are passing their exams in English and Reading.

An argument in the case is that without literacy a citizen cannot learn, cannot communicate effectively and cannot utilise effectively the rights that the Constitution and Bill of Rights create.  In effect, if the state falis, as the claimants argue it is failing in Detroit, to provide a decent education then the balance of power between citizens and state is tipped away from those citizens.

A right to education is not new.  German constitutions from the mid-19th century created such rights.  In England, John Stuart Mill argued that the state should never people able to prevent a person receiving education.  The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights all protect a right to education.

One of the lawyers bringing the case said this:

Instead of providing students with a meaningful education and literacy, the State simply provides buildings—many in serious disrepair—in which students pass days and then years with no opportunity to learn to read, write, or comprehend. The lawsuit documents pervasive, shock-the-conscience conditions that deny children the opportunity to attain literacy, including lack of books, classrooms without teachers, insufficient desks, buildings plagued by vermin, unsafe facilities, and extreme temperatures. One seventh and eighth grade classroom was taught for a month by an eighth grade student.  

You can read more about the case on the website of Public Counsel, a charitable law firm that acts for free for people in the US.

People interested in human rights and education will watch this case with interest.

* Antony Hook was #2 on the South East European list in 2014, is the English Party's representative on the Federal Executive and produces this sites EU Referendum Roundup.

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