Staff Writer Victoria Borlando reports on a speech delivered by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education.

Education, in the context of Dr. Koumbou Boly Barry’s panel discussion on her work as a UNESCO Special Rapporteur, is both a preventive and peaceful force. Three days before she presents this speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, former Minister of Education of Burkina Faso explains how the right to education contributes to the prevention of human rights atrocities and violations, as well as how its effects can create a culture of goodness, peace, and acceptance of each other’s diverse cultures.

She begins her speech by outlining three messages: First, one of gratitude. “This is the first time,” she begins, “that I am talking in an academic space.” Before Monday, Dr. Boly Barry has only been in New York once, receiving a UNESCO prize for her work in advocating for women’s education in both Burkina Faso and the rest of Africa. Wanting the audience to know her background to know her motivations, Dr. Boly Barry described coming from a Nomadic society, where “only 2% of all girls attend school.” In a succinct yet powerful sentence, the Special Rapporteur declares, “I am an exceptional case.” The hard reality of achieving a higher education (receiving a PhD in Economic History) in a place where most people like her do not have that opportunity truly opened her eyes, motivating her to “work with people who have no way of getting the right to education, both in [her] country and all of Africa.” Standing in front of an institute of learning, an open space that allows a diverse group of people easy access to higher education – this act alone represents the strong belief she has for encouraging the enforcement of the right to education.

Next, Dr. Boly Berry wanted to explain the purpose of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, stating that the desire to share information, to shed light on pertinent societal issues, motivates this group of professional experts to investigate special cases in countries and make accommodations that benefit the country’s citizens. In her speech, she provided three “tools” she uses to advocate for the right to education: country visits, themes, and complaints. 

The first tool, the country visit, provides a hands-on case-study of a country, evaluating its ability to enforce accessible education. In her profession, Dr. Boly Berry mentioned traveling to Tunisia, studying its education system in order to suggest government accommodations for better programs. 

Next, she emphasized the importance of the “theme”, a way to focus on a specific issue. She gives the example of a recent theme she highlighted: literacy programs and non-formal education. She noted that 1 billion people in the world are not receiving a formal education, and most of these people come from backgrounds that include poverty, disabilities, rural/nomadic regions, and gender inequality. Thus, she examined how these people received an education, usually through non-formal means, in order to bring awareness to their disenfranchisement and to make formal education more accessible to them through government action.

Lastly, she describes the use of the “complaint”, which, in her opinion, becomes the most powerful tool. She argued that the power for civil society itself to declare a violation of human rights by its government, to call upon UNESCO to pay special attention to the violation of the right to education, sets the precedent of holding powerful institutions accountable for their actions.

Finally, Dr. Boly Barry considers the way that the right to education has a key role in the prevention of atrocities and human rights violations. “Ignoring a country’s history,” she said during the questioning period, “changing the truth will only end in war.” Education, in her eyes, pushes certain values that can either bring positive effects, allowing people to understand differing points of view and work together in a diverse culture, or negative effects, such as instilling fear and prejudice of the “other.” In a time where “everybody fears everybody”, as she stated, the right to education is crucial to ensure that the values of peace and acceptance are being enforced from a young age. She emphasizes the “problem of participation” – the societal inaccessibility of education, or the lack of safe and open spaces where all members of the education system “have a way to express themselves.”

If there is one message to take away from this guest lecture, it is that education is a necessary right for all people to have, as it prevents misunderstanding and atrocities and promotes values like peace and acceptance of diversity. As Dr. Boly Barry pointed out, “education can prevent, but it can also build peace in times of conflict.” So, as she prepares to deliver her speech in front of the General Assembly on Friday, those who attended her lecture on Monday are left with the notion that their receiving a higher education symbolizes so much more than accessibility to well-paying jobs. Education symbolizes a connection to the rest of the world – a way to understand each other and work together to enforce peace in times of turbulence. 

Dr. Koumbou Boly Barry via Victoria Borlando