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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 1998

Is the Recommendation Legally Binding?

The UNESCO recommendation is not a convention and is, therefore, not legally binding on the member states. Such UNESCO statements have, however, considerable moral force, and UNESCO hopes that member states will live up to the obligations for which they voted at the general conference. It also expects that various aspects of a statement such as this one would be incorporated into the laws and practices of the member states. Such documents tend to develop a life of their own. The more they are used and quoted around the world, the more effective they become.

Furthermore, in the section on civil rights of academics (article 26), the document states: "in cases of gross violation of their rights, higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to appeal to the relevant national, regional or international bodies such as the agencies of the United Nations, and organizations representing higher-education teaching personnel should extend full support in such cases." This means in practice that cases involving the arbitrary arrest or detention of academics, torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment could be appealed to the office of the director-general where there is a structure for the handling of such cases.

Article 75 also mandates the director-general to prepare a comprehensive report on the world situation regarding academic freedom and human rights of higher education teaching personnel. And not only from the information supplied by member states but also on the basis of any other information supported by reliable evidence gathered by such methods as the director-general may deem appropriate. It is not as yet clear exactly how this will be done but it is a commitment.

During the debate at the general conference, the representative of the International Labour Organization said there needed to be an effective follow-up mechanism. The ILO suggested the enlargement of the mandate of the current ILO/UNESCO committee (CEART) which hears complaints concerning the rights of primary and secondary school teachers. One of the members of that committee is a Canadian, professor Mark Thompson of the University of British Columbia and a former member of CAUT's collective bargaining & economic benefits committee. Australia opposed such a follow-up mechanism. Most of the member states remained silent on the issue, preferring to deal with the document itself before addressing the question of follow-up.

There was also some discussion in the corridors of the need for UNESCO to have a centre which would not only deal with serious complaints but would also commission research on the state of academic freedom and human rights in the academy throughout the world.

In the fall of 1998 UNESCO will be hosting a world conference on higher education which is likely to result in a declaration on higher education. It is the hope of CAUT that this conference may address itself to the question of how best to ensure that the rights spelled out in the Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel are, in fact, respected around the world.