1. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires each State party which has not been able to secure compulsory primary education, free of charge, to undertake, within two years, to work out and adopt a detailed plan of action for the progressive implementation, within a reasonable number of years, to be fixed in the plan, of the principle of compulsory primary education free of charge for all. In spite of the obligations undertaken in accordance with article 14, a number of States parties have neither drafted nor implemented a plan of action for free and compulsory primary education.
2. The right to education, recognized in articles 13 and 14 of the Covenant, as well as in a variety of other international treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, is of vital importance. It has been variously classified as an economic right, a social right and a cultural right. It is all of these. It is also, in many ways, a civil right and a political right, since it is central to the full and effective realization of those rights as well. In this respect, the right to education epitomizes the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights.
3. In line with its clear and unequivocal obligation under article 14, every State party is under a duty to present to the Committee a plan of action drawn up along the lines specified in paragraph 8 below. This obligation needs to be scrupulously observed in view of the fact that in developing countries, 130 million children of school age are currently estimated to be without access to primary education, of whom about two thirds are girls. 1/ The Committee is fully aware that many diverse factors have made it difficult for States parties to fulfil their obligation to provide a plan of action. For example, the structural adjustment programmes that began in the 1970s, the debt crises that followed in the 1980s and the financial crises of the late 1990s, as well as other factors, have greatly exacerbated the extent to which the right to primary education is being denied. These difficulties, however, cannot relieve States parties of their obligation to adopt and submit a plan of action to the Committee, as provided for in article 14 of the Covenant.
4. Plans of action prepared by States parties to the Covenant in accordance with article 14 are especially important as the work of the Committee has shown that the lack of educational opportunities for children often reinforces their subjection to various other human rights violations. For instance these children, who may live in abject poverty and not lead healthy lives, are particularly vulnerable to forced labour and other forms of exploitation. Moreover, there is a direct correlation between, for example, primary school enrolment levels for girls and major reductions in child marriages.
5. Article 14 contains a number of elements which warrant some elaboration in the light of the Committee's extensive experience in examining State party reports.
6. Compulsory. The element of compulsion serves to highlight the fact that neither parents, nor guardians, nor the State are entitled to treat as optional the decision as to whether the child should have access to primary education. Similarly, the prohibition of gender discrimination in access to education, required also by articles 2 and 3 of the Covenant, is further underlined by this requirement. It should be emphasized, however, that the education offered must be adequate in quality, relevant to the child and must promote the realization of the child's other rights.
7. Free of charge. The nature of this requirement is unequivocal. The right is expressly formulated so as to ensure the availability of primary education without charge to the child, parents or guardians. Fees imposed by the Government, the local authorities or the school, and other direct costs, constitute disincentives to the enjoyment of the right and may jeopardize its realization. They are also often highly regressive in effect. Their elimination is a matter which must be addressed by the required plan of action. Indirect costs, such as compulsory levies on parents (sometimes portrayed as being voluntary, when in fact they are not), or the obligation to wear a relatively expensive school uniform, can also fall into the same category. Other indirect costs may be permissible, subject to the Committee's examination on a case-by-case basis. This provision of compulsory primary education in no way conflicts with the right recognized in article 13.3 of the Covenant for parents and guardians “to choose for their children schools other than those established by the public authorities”.
8. Adoption of a detailed plan. The State party is required to adopt a plan of action within two years. This must be interpreted as meaning within two years of the Covenant's entry into force of the State concerned, or within two years of a subsequent change in circumstances which has led to the non-observance of the relevant obligation. This obligation is a continuing one and States parties to which the provision is relevant by virtue of the prevailing situation are not absolved from the obligation as a result of their past failure to act within the two-year limit. The plan must cover all of the actions which are necessary in order to secure each of the requisite component parts of the right and must be sufficiently detailed so as to ensure the comprehensive realization of the right. Participation of all sections of civil society in the drawing up of the plan is vital and some means of periodically reviewing progress and ensuring accountability are essential. Without those elements, the significance of the article would be undermined.
9. Obligations. A State party cannot escape the unequivocal obligation to adopt a plan of action on the grounds that the necessary resources are not available. If the obligation could be avoided in this way, there would be no justification for the unique requirement contained in article 14 which applies, almost by definition, to situations characterized by inadequate financial resources. By the same token, and for the same reason, the reference to “international assistance and cooperation” in article 2.1 and to “international action” in article 23 of the Covenant are of particular relevance in this situation. Where a State party is clearly lacking in the financial resources and/or expertise required to “work out and adopt” a detailed plan, the international community has a clear obligation to assist.
10. Progressive implementation. The plan of action must be aimed at securing the progressive implementation of the right to compulsory primary education, free of charge, under article 14. Unlike the provision in article 2.1, however, article 14 specifies that the target date must be “within a reasonable number of years” and moreover, that the time-frame must “be fixed in the plan”. In other words, the plan must specifically set out a series of targeted implementation dates for each stage of the progressive implementation of the plan. This underscores both the importance and the relative inflexibility of the obligation in question. Moreover, it needs to be stressed in this regard that the State party's other obligations, such as non-discrimination, are required to be implemented fully and immediately.
11. The Committee calls upon every State party to which article 14 is relevant to ensure that its terms are fully complied with and that the resulting plan of action is submitted to the Committee as an integral part of the reports required under the Covenant. Further, in appropriate cases, the Committee encourages States parties to seek the assistance of relevant international agencies, including the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, in relation both to the preparation of plans of action under article 14 and their subsequent implementation. The Committee also calls upon the relevant international agencies to assist States parties to the greatest extent possible to meet their obligations on an urgent basis.