February 10, 2017

Right to Informational Self-Determination of the State and the International Human Right to Education

The state has no right to keep secrets and tell lies.


We are undoubtedly living in interesting times. One of the central points of concern expressed these days is the declining role of facts and knowledge in political and social debate. Donald Trump and pro-Brexit campaigners no longer seem exceptional and outrageous, and the style of anonymous internet forums has actually found its way into parliaments and the political arena. Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” These words are as apt today as they were in the 1940s. Education is organised by, and usually provided by, the state. So, if a state is led by a government not interested in safeguarding democracy but only its own power, how can democracy be safeguarded? Should it be safeguarded? Or is it a question of state sovereignty?
We are slowly accepting the idea that people have the right to information self-determination. This right could, and should, be extended to all self-aware entities, which may include many people – for example, families, communities, villages, clubs and definitely nation states. A nation state’s right to information self-determination means, inter alia, that it has the right to secrets and lies. (emphasis added)
That quote comes from a former Estonian minister of defence, Jaak Aaviksoo. In his article about informational and emotional confrontation and self-defence, he argues that acknowledging and practising the right to informational self-determination by states is necessary for psychological self-defence because informational attacks are much more in evidence today than conventional ones, the informational opposition always exists, and “the ‘sword of truth’ is not enough for self-defence”.1
State security and the field of self-defence are very clear examples of how the global situation and actors from outside a state affect people’s lives within it. The strength of a state lies in the first instance in a strong collective identity. W. Somerset Maugham, in his essay collection Strictly Personal published in 1942, shares deliberations and memories about France and Great Britain, claiming, inter alia, that the reasons for France’s defeat by Germany in 1940 lay not so much in weaponry or military strength but in society itself: as patriotism and the protection of the homeland had, for ordinary citizens, he says, become a mere catchphrase, valid only for the protection of rich people’s assets, the hope of people uniting for the defence of France in the event of foreign attack was crushed.2 Maugham talks about the alienation of citizens from the state in the context of unequal and unjust socio-economic standards, but it illustrates very vividly the interdependence between the strength of the state and the attitudes of its people on the one hand, and between the state’s security and the security and welfare of the people on the other.
Based on that example, it is in the interest of the state and for reasons of the security of its citizens to have a strong national identity. But, as will be elaborated below, there might also appear to be a conflict between these, a conflict illustrating a question about the relationship between state sovereignty and human rights—the two main cornerstones of international law. The state has, on the one hand, the freedom and obligation to develop and sustain its collective national identity, and on the other hand an obligation not to do that by e.g. “brainwashing” people. The main and probably most powerful state-controlled collective (and at the same time individual) identity formation takes place in schools. Let us call this an interconnected identity formation. The right to education therefore contains both of the mentioned obligations, at the same time setting criteria on how a state can and should fulfil them.
As a final element in this dynamic picture, the global level needs to be brought in. In the education process the students are prepared to become citizens not only of one country but of the world (“global citizens”). Drawing from that and the fact that education is a prerequisite for reasoned exercise of civil and political liberties, a “well-educated population may also be a prerequisite to maintaining democratic structures and ideals”,3 and education has a pivotal role in sustaining peace in the world (according to democratic peace theory, at least4). So, creating and implementing curriculums and education policy is not only an internal matter but also has an important impact on the global level. The main subjects of education are people whose lives and fates are directly affected by and dependent on it, so human rights law has an important role to play. As an historical picture of one’s country forms an integral part of both an individual’s and a state’s identity, I will focus on history education and pose a perhaps slightly provocative question: if a state’s right to self-determination contains a right to “secrets and lies”,5 then does the individual’s right to education and self-determination include the right to historical truth?

The Role of the Right to Education as an International Human Right in People’s Lives

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993 states that the universal nature of human rights (being “the birthright of all human beings”) “is beyond question” and, at the same time, that “the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind”.6
The right to education itself also contains, besides the mentioned general paradox of human rights, a dual purpose: it “may be regarded as a commodity to which an individual is entitled both as an end in itself but also as a means to other welfare rights”.7 A similar perception was described by early natural law philosophers such as Rousseau and Locke.8 Developments in the 19th century—the emergence of socialism and liberalism—placed education more firmly than before in the catalogue of human rights, but also in a dual way: from the social side as a positive obligation of the state to secure the economic and social well-being of the community; and from the liberal side as a right “formulated to defend and advance the freedom of science, research and teaching against interference by the Church and State”.9
I would say that the right to education in its dual nature overarches the general duality of all human rights: not only is its implementation twofold (having to be universal and particular at the same time), but the particularities actually can be and are created and sustained by implementing the right to education. Cultural or regional particularities do not come from outside; they are created by people, and are therefore initially dependent on those people’s identity (individual and collective), the formation of which is generally state-controlled as it takes place in school. As a result, education influences, inter alia, people’s perception of the world, human rights and the international order. These perceptions, gathered into collective consciousness, create legitimatisation for the state’s policies, including education and foreign policy. In this way, the content and implementation of the right to education, by influencing the behaviour of states, influences the enjoyment, universality and credibility of all human rights, not only in one country but in the world as a whole.
The first proclamation on an international level of the right to education came in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Article 26 (2) states:
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.10
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) has stayed with the same definition in principle, with some additional key points such as the “sense of [the human personality’s] dignity” and enabling people to “participate effectively in a free society”.11
It might be said that the international legal definition of the right to education contains all the above levels: individual, national and global. The global dimension is well described by the idea of “international education”—the term highlighted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (in line with the aforementioned human rights acts), bringing together different connotations of the terms “international understanding”, “co-operation” and “peace” as an indivisible whole.12 That is a vivid example of the statement in the Vienna Declaration that the protection of human rights is not only an obligation on the state but, parallel to that, also a “legitimate concern of the international community.”13
As stated in the report “Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World”, “Empowering people to influence decisions that affect their lives and hold their rulers accountable is no longer just a national issue.”14
The UDHR and ICESCR both set the full development of the human personality as a central aim of education. At the same time, it is no less important to keep in mind “an international dimension and a global perspective in education at all levels and in all its forms; … understanding and respect for all peoples, their cultures, civilizations, values and ways of life, including domestic ethnic cultures and cultures of other nations; … awareness of the increasing global interdependence between peoples and nations”.15
This idea is summed up well in the following formulation: “The right to education thus refers to a person placed in a specific context but also to a subject with the ability to distance himself or herself from and above the cultural frameworks.”16 In my opinion, these dimensions of the universal right to education are compatible, interdependent and necessary to achieve the aim of full development of one’s personality and potential in respect of human dignity.

History Education and the Right to Truth as Part of Identity Formation

“Done well, the study of history provides a framework for exploration and analysis, for pondering contingencies of the present and past.”17 By corresponding to these characteristics, history education would meet the criteria of the global yet individual-centred education described above. The content of education (and memory politics) depends heavily on cultural, historical and social circumstances of a country. We cannot and should not wish to give one definition of historical truth, or write identical history books for all. But the way history education is conducted and textbooks are written must not inhibit individuals from being able to think critically and hold different perspectives as global citizens—on the contrary, it should enhance it. Based on the discussion above, I argue that the aim of the full development of one’s personality cannot be achieved through education (and memory) policies lacking the provision of impartial information (which is one of the cornerstones of democratic society) about one’s history and, therefore, the right to education also contains the right to truth.
Let’s take an example from close to home. A few years ago, there was a huge debate around the second volume of History of Estonia.18 This debate was formed around a very crucial question: should history focus on narrative creation aimed mainly at sustaining and building national identity, or should it be foremost a science for finding out what actually happened, directed at understanding and enabling critical reflection of the different social, international, political and other processes in human development? One side supported the first option, the other clearly the second.
It is not only in Estonia, of course, where the national-romantic approach has prevailed. It has been common for other European countries also to emphasise their “national values” or “mythical foundations of the nation,” often diminishing the role of other groups in the nation’s history, drawing a picture of a “mono-ethnic history” or, on the contrary, emphasising ever-peaceful coexistence of different nations, thereby excluding “critical questions or different interpretations” of past events.19 In conclusion, most history curricula in Europe
present national mirrors of pride and pain, in which pupils are made aware firstly of national sufferings and secondly of credits to national pride. The damage done to others and the mere fact that others could even have been victims of one’s own country are issues which hardly feature in any history curriculum or syllabus in Europe.20
The national narrative, of course, does not exclude a professional and truthful approach to history. I do not propose that national perspectives on history should be left aside or that nationalism is necessarily bad. It is obviously not possible to deal with all incidents in human history with equal thoroughness. So, despite all crimes against humanity in human history receiving the minimal “moral obligation” of remembrance, and despite the equal importance and meaning of all human suffering, it is natural and necessary that every country deals foremost with its own history. But emphasising the national perspective should not be done in a way that minimises the common human essence, European and global perspective and contributes to the identity-building of students by offering role models as national heroes rather than as people of value.21
Taking into account the very sensitive and culturally various historical consciousness and respect for state sovereignty, what could be constituted as the minimal level of truth that a state must provide in order not to infringe an individual’s right to self-determination and education?; what are the limits for “secrets and lies” in history education as part of a state’s informational self-determination? Besides the abovementioned criteria for education, it has been recognised by the international community that there is a right to human rights education.22 I consider history and citizen education as the most directly focused and influential subjects in that sense. Teaching about crimes against humanity in history lessons is, in my opinion, therefore an absolute necessity to achieve the objectives of the education described above, thus fulfilling the right to human rights education.
According to the definition in Article 7 of the widely accepted Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity include: murder, extermination, torture, rape, political, racial or religious persecution and other inhumane acts, if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.23 Looking at the number of countries that have ratified the statute, it might be said that there is an international consensus on this definition. In many European countries, denying crimes against humanity is prohibited. A decision of the European Court of Human Rights, upholding the previous case law, said the following:
There can be no doubt that denying the reality of clearly established historical facts, such as the Holocaust, … does not constitute historical research akin to a quest for the truth. The aim and the result of that approach are completely different, the real purpose being to rehabilitate the National-Socialist regime and, as a consequence, accuse the victims themselves of falsifying history.24
Thus, the Court found that expressing such opinions does not fall under the protection of the freedom of expression according to Article 10 (1) of the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Court continued:
The denial or rewriting of this type of historical fact undermines the values on which the fight against racism and anti-Semitism [is] based and constitutes a serious threat to public order. Such acts are incompatible with democracy and human rights because they infringe the rights of others.25
The prohibition of denial of clearly established historical facts about crimes against humanity constitutes, in itself, a protection of truth (which the victims of crimes against humanity have a right to claim in the Court). It is also clear from the decision cited that a state has a positive obligation to protect this right by legal and judicial means. This protection would be in vain, however, if a state itself at the same time violated this right on the very basic level—in school education—either by not having the topic in the curriculum or by teaching it in a way that actually diminishes or denies the crimes. We can therefore argue that the right to education includes the right to truth about crimes against humanity.
In one of the study materials in Russian schools, the Bolshevik terror is depicted as “a measure to improve the management of the society”. It is also emphasised that Stalin acted as a manager totally rationally in a specific critical historical situation that could destabilise the country from within and outside:
as security guard of the system, as consistent advocate for the transformation of the country into industrial society managed from united centre, as leader of the country that faced a great war in the nearest future.26
If the above could be taken as more or less an interpretation, the following is undoubtedly a falsified presentation of facts:
regarding the number of people repressed, the author included only people who were executed. Repressions during World War II are presented as a necessary means in preventing looting and alarmism, thereby strengthening the labor discipline and social order. The author indicated that every country uses such measures during wartime.27
Leaving aside the question of justiciability, it could be argued that the right to education (especially the right to self-determination and the right to receive impartial information in education) is being infringed because the described practice does not conform with the state’s obligations under international law as mentioned above. Of course, the duty of remembrance or the right to truth is not contravened because of national perspective, but only if part of history is deliberately removed or falsified, i.e. if history education is used for deliberate manipulation or falsification.


A strong national identity should serve the public interest, as described earlier—people capable of critical thinking and reasoned participation in a free society. As the world has become “compressed in time and space,”28 this participation also includes the global level, and the identity-building of one country influences the world as a whole. Thus, the right (and obligation) of the state to develop its national identity exists in an interconnected framework of global accountability and international human rights law. The dynamics can be summed up by the following diagram:
A distinction must be made between national identity-building legitimate under international human rights law and the creation of a propagandistic ideology serving the limited interests of those in power. The right to truth about crimes against humanity in history education, taken together with the objectives of education under international human rights law, sets limits and obligations for the state. The truth about these crimes needs to be provided for the protection of victims of those crimes, but also of people and society (national and international) in general. The identity formation taking place in schools simultaneously forms individual and collective (national) identities. According to the rationale of the international human right to education, putting an individual at the centre of the learning process and preparing him or her to cope in a democratic society in a globalising world is the central task of education.
Thus, the influence of international norms and principles on people’s lives is expressed on a very existential level—identity formation. The state has no right to secrets and lies, just as people do have the right to the truth—which (at least concerning crimes against humanity) constitutes a part of international law, even if its exact limits are not yet completely clear.
1 Aaviksoo, J “Information Confrontation and Self-defence”. Diplomaatia, March 2011. www.diplomaatia.ee/en/article/information-confront… 2 Somerset Maugham, W Strictly Personal, cited in Aasmäe, H “Rangelt isiklik. Sotsiaalpoliitiline arvustus” (“Strictly personal. Socio-political criticism”). Sirp, 7 November 2013. www.sirp.ee/index.php?option=com_content&view… 3 Hodgson, D The Human Right to Education. Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1998, p. 18, emphasis added.
4 “Democratic peace is the proposition that democracies are more peaceful in their foreign relations.” From Reiter, D “Democratic Peace Theory” in Oxford Bibliographies [online]. www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-978… 5 Aaviksoo.
6 World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, 25 June 1993. A/CONF.157/23 Art. I 1 and 5. www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/vienna… 7 Wringe, C Children’s rights: A philosophical study, 1981, p. 146, cited in Hodgson, p. 20.
8 John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about “the parental obligation to educate children … Education was perceived as being of such vital importance for human life that it was conceived as a pre-existing or natural right”: see Hodgson, pp. 7–8.
9 Hodgson, p. 9.
10 UN General Assembly, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, Art. 26 (2). www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ 11 UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, Art. 13 (1). www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR…. 12 UNESCO Commission for Education, Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 19 November 1974, Art. 1(b). unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0011/001140/114040e.pdf p. 38.
13 Vienna Declaration, Art. I 4.
14 United Nations Development Programme, “Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World”, 2002. hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/263/hdr_2…
15 UNESCO, Art. 4 (a–c).
16 Jover, G “What Does the Right to Education Mean? A Look at an International Debate from Legal, Ethical, and Pedagogical Points of View”. Studies in Philosophy and Education 20(3), pp. 213–23.
17 Brown, JH “History, civics and balancing “STEM’”. The CT Mirror, 1 November 2013. www.ctmirror.org/op-ed/2013/11/01/history-civics-a… 18 Kala, T, Kaljundi, L, Kreem, J, Leimus, I. Markus, K, Mänd, A, Põltsam-Jürjo, I, Russow, E, Selart, A, Tamm, M and Valk, H History of Estonia II: Medieval Estonia, Institute of History and Archaeology, University of Tartu, 2012.
19 Van der Leeuw-Roord, J “Working with History: National Identity as a Focal Point in European History Education”. International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research 1(1), December 2000 (forum post).
20 Ibid., emphasis original.
21 Ibid.
22 UN General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, 19 December 2011, A/RES/66/137. daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/467/04/PDF… 23 UN General Assembly, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (last amended 2010), 17 July 1998, ISBN No. 92-9227-227-6. www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3a84.html.
24 Garaudy v. France no. 65831/01, 24 June 2003, The Law 1(i). hudoc.echr.coe.int/sites/eng/pages/search.aspx?i=0….
25 Ibid.
26 Korostelina, K “War of textbooks: History education in Russia and Ukraine”. Communist and Post-Communist Studies 43(2), June 2010, pp. 129–37.
27 Ibid.
28 Prof. Jernej Pikalo, in a lecture on economic globalisation and human rights at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation (EIUC), Venice, 19 November 2013.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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