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UNESCO approaches its work with a variety of tools.  It is not a funding agency.  It supports programs and projects in its fields of competence, promotes the development of networks of concerned individuals and organizations in these various fields, stimulates reflection on important issues through international commissions, organizes conferences, and issues publications.  One important set of tools that is sometimes overlooked is UNESCO's standard setting, or normative, instruments - conventions, recommendations, and declarations.

UNESCO offers leadership in the setting of norms and standards in its fields of competence.

Its constitution provides that a General Conference of its members may adopt conventions and recommendations for submission to members states.  Each of the member states undertakes to submit recommendations or conventions to its competent authorities within a period of one year from the close of the session of the General Conference at which they are adopted.  The process of ratification in each member state may take several years.  In a federal state such as Canada, a lengthy process of consultation and consensus-building is sometimes necessary.


International conventions may be adopted either by the General Conference of UNESCO or by international conferences of member states convened by UNESCO.  Conventions must be approved by a two-thirds majority vote.  Once passed, UNESCO opens them to member states which undertake, by acceding to them, to comply with the rules they set forth.  Conventions are thus the most solemn of UNESCO's normative instruments.

One example of a convention of special importance to Canada is UNESCO's Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas, and Degrees Concerning Higher Education in the States Belonging to the Europe Region (which includes the United States and Canada).   The convention allows Canadians to move more freely to and from other countries for study and work by establishing a system for the recognition of educational qualifications (see Sheet 10)

It is important to stress, however, that even when a convention has been acceded to by a member state, it does not have the force of law within that state.  Conventions are not justiciable.  That is, a citizen cannot take a government to court for failure to abide by its commitments under a convention.  Once a state has acceded to a convention, the work has only begun to ensure that its provisions are given life in the policies, programs, and legislation of a member state.   It is the role of activists inside and outside the state to remind governments of the commitments they have taken on in ratifying conventions.


Recommendations, which may be adopted by a simple majority of UNESCO's General Conference, formulate principles and norms for the international regulation of any particular question.   Member states are invited to take account of them in their national legislation or to give them effect by any other appropriate means.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, working through the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, played a key role in drafting UNESCO's Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel.  This recommendation is an important contribution to the protection of human rights world-wide.  Its provisions protect postsecondary teachers from attacks on academic freedom, human rights abuses, and unacceptable labour standards (see Sheet 6).


Declarations adopted by the General Conference are statements enunciating principles of great and lasting importance.  A recent example is the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, a ground-breaking statement of ethics at a time of rapid change in the field of biotechnology (see Sheet 11).

In addition to declarations adopted by the General Conference, there are also several influential declarations and statements adopted at international conferences organized by UNESCO.  The Seville Statement on Violence, for example, issued by a group of internationally respected scientists in i986, stated clearly and forcefully that violence is not inevitable, nor is it an immutable component of human nature.

Another example is the Declaration on Education for Peace, Human Rights, and Democracy made by the 4,4th session of the International Conference on Education in 1994.   This declaration reaffirmed the commitment of member state@ to the principles of a Recommendation adopted twenty years earlier, in 1974, concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  Among other things, it expresses the intentions of the members to strive to base education on principles and methods that contribute to the development of the personality of pupils, students and adults who are respectful of their fellow human beings and determined to promote peace, human rights and democracy.  It includes a Framework for Action that includes specifics on such matters as curriculum development, teaching materials, and teacher training.


Conventions, recommendations, and declarations are organizing tools.  Individuals and organizations with expertise and concern about particular issues work together, both domestically and internationally, to formulate them.   Once they have been adopted by a General Conference, or by an international conference organized by UNESCO, they become instruments with which to continue to work on an issue.  This work may include, at the outset, encouraging governments to accede to international conventions.  There are also important follow-up tasks, especially monitoring the implementation of conventions, recommendations, and declarations in the policies, programs, and legislation of governments.

In some cases, a convention includes the obligation to create a mechanism in each country to implement its provisions.  A good example is the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials (CICIC), established by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) to meet Canada's obligations under the Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Diplomas, and Degrees Concerning Higher Education (described in Sheet 10).  Normally, such an obligation falls to the national government, but it may be delegated to other bodies.  In Canada, for example, where education is a provincial responsibility, the CMEC is responsible for follow-up and reporting on Canada's performance in this sector.

All of UNESCO's normative instruments include measures designed to monitor their implementation.  Many require reporting from governments on progress in incorporating their provisions into legislation, policy, and programs, and of the impact these actions have had.  For example, the CMEC has reported twice on behalf of Canada on our country’s performance in implementing the Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  UNESCO produces syntheses of the national reports that allow comparisons to be made with other countries.

The requirement to report to an international body on performance, and the publication of international comparisons by UNESCO, are important incentives to governments to implement the measures conscientiously.  They create an opportunity for activists to hold their governments accountable in the court of public opinion.

ARE YOU FAMILIAR with UNESCO’S normative instruments?  Do you know what they say, who wrote them, whose interests they serve?  It is likely that several of them relate directly to your concerns as a professional or as a citizen.  These could be useful instruments to you in your work and in your efforts as an agent of change.


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1998.  Permission to reprint is granted provided acknowledgment is made to:
The Canadian Centres for Teaching Peace
Last update:  13 Jul 2000