Europe: Violations of Home Educating Families’ Human Rights

1280px-Geneve_Palais_Nations_2011-09-11_13_59_26_PICT4682We’re publishing the complete text of the presentation made by FamilyPolicy.RU Managing Director Pavel Parfentiev during the side-event at the United Nations Headquarter in Geneva on June 11th, 2014. Among the participants of the event organized by OIDEL during the 26th regular session of the Human Rights Council were numerous educational experts  from different countries as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education Mr. Kishore Singh to whom were passed the copy of the presentation and accompanying material (includint the text of the Berlin Declaration on the right to home education).

Pavel Parfentiev

Europe: Violations of Home Educating Families’ Human Rights [1]

Introduction: Home Education and Human Rights

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights «Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children» (Article 26(3)). This fundamental right of the parents is recognized in the same Article of UDHR that proclaims the universal right to education itself. Therefore it is obvious that the universal right to education and the fundamental right of the parents to choose the kind of education for their children are intrinsically interconnected.

The reason why the drafters of the UDHR included this right of parents into this fundamental document was to avoid any future possibility of repeating the forced ideological indoctrination of children by the state through state-run schools like that done by the Nazis. Therefore the UDHR intended to preserve the freedom and diversity of education by linking it to the sphere of family freedom and fundamental rights of parents.

This prior right of parents is holistically interconnected with the whole set of internationally recognized fundamental rights of parents, such as their liberty to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions (Art. 18(4) of ICCPR, Art. 13(3) of ICESCR), their right to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State (Art. 13(3) of ICESCR), their right to provide appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise of their children’s rights, including the right to education (Art. 5 of CRC taken together with its Art. 28) etc. All these rights should be viewed in the light of the fact, recognized in the Preamble to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that “the family, as the fundamental group of society” is “the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children”.

Taking into consideration all these facts it is obvious that the fundamental right of the parents to choose the kind of education for their children, which is the necessary protection of the society from any form of governmental totalitarianism, necessarily include both the right of the parents to establish and direct their own independent schools and their right to choose parents-run home education for their children.

This obvious truth was recently restated in the Berlin Declaration, the civil society document presented at the first Global Home Education Conference held in 2012 in Berlin, Germany [2]. Citing numerous international human rights instruments the Berlin Declaration reminds “that numerous international treaties and declarations recognize the essential, irreplaceable and fundamental role of parents and the family in the education and upbringing of children as a natural right that must be respected and protected by all governments”, affirms home education as a practice where parents and children undertake the activity of education themselves to pursue learning that meets the needs of the family and children, and condemns “the policies of those nations that prohibit the practice of home education and permit the persecution of home educating families through excessive or coercive fines, threats to parental custody and application of criminal sanctions”.

The aforementioned rights of parents and family are foundational and indispensable for preserving the genuine freedom of the society and are, therefore, closely interrelated with the whole scope of civil and political human rights.

The educational function and educational task naturally belongs to the family and parents. This educational dimension of the family precedes that of the state. It should not and cannot then be destroyed by the involvement of the State into the area of education. All the activities of the state in the area of education should always be performed with due respect to the abovementioned fundamental rights of parents – and children’s rights corresponding to them. That means that the government’s involvement into education should always follow the principle of subsidiarity. In the area of education the state is the secondary actor, while the family remains and would always be the primary and leading actor, whose role should prevail over governmental interests.

Unfortunately these basic human rights of parents and children’s rights in the area of education corresponding to them are seriously threatened in many countries of the world, including European countries. One of the main causes of this problem is the unbalanced and biased interpretation given to the international human rights treaties that groundlessly places the authority of the government in the educational sphere over the fundamental rights of parents [3].

As a matter of fact, the governments under different pretexts often seek to prohibit home education or to restrict the freedom of parents to choose it for their children without any real and due reasons. Very often it seems like an attempt to revive and to preserve the educational monopoly of the state as an instrument of restricting human freedom through indoctrination.

In some European countries, especially Germany and Sweden, these illegitimate restrictions imposed on the fundamental rights of parents are leading to brutal violations of basic human rights of both parents and children, including groundless removal of children from their parents as well as threatening the responsible and good parents whose only “failures” are their independent educational decisions with administrative and criminal sanctions. It’s necessary to note that those violations of the prior right of parents to choose the kind of education for their children are often accompanied by violations of the right to freedom of conscience and religion.

We consider these actions of the governments to constitute clear and serious human rights violations. Below is a list of some of the recent cases of this kind, based on the information gathered from open sources or provided to us by different NGOs including the Home School Legal Defense Association, an international human rights advocacy organization based in USA.

Violations of Human Rights of Home Educators in Sweden

The Case of Domenic Johansson

The Case of Domenic Johansson is illustrative for the human rights violations home educators and their children are facing in Sweden. The application before the European Court of Human Rights gives the following overview of the case:

On June 26th, 2009, Domenic Johansson, a seven year-old boy (born on September 9, 2001) who is a dual citizen of Sweden and India, was seated in a commercial airliner awaiting departure of a flight to India. Without a court order or any kind of preliminary notification, Swedish authorities boarded the plane and removed Domenic from the custody of his parents, Christer Johansson (a Swedish citizen) and Annie Johansson (an Indian citizen). The sole purpose of the removal of Domenic was to prevent his parents from moving with him to India.

At the time of the removal, the sole issue that motivated the actions of the Swedish government was the fact that Domenic was being homeschooled. No other information concerning minor medical issues (which have arisen since the boy was unlawfully removed from his parents) was known to any Swedish authority at the time he was peremptorily removed from his parents.

Swedish officials removed this boy from an international flight solely to prevent his parents from moving to another nation and from educating him in a manner that is lawful in India, in Sweden, and in a majority of nations. 

Since this extraordinary separation on June 26th, 2009, Mr. and Mrs. Johansson have been allowed extremely limited contact with their son and only under overbearing state supervision. All attempts by the parents to offer alternatives for Domenic’s education, as well as their offers of sincere cooperation on the other minor matters that have since been addressed, have been rebuffed by the Swedish authorities. It now appears obvious that the Swedish government intends to keep permanent custody of this boy simply because his parents wished to move to India and to homeschool him [4].

Since then the child is still separated from his parents on the sole ground of being home educated at the time of the removal [5].

Families Forced into Exile: Himmelstrands and Other Cases

Many other home educating families that faced the danger of administrative persecution or were forced to pay large fines for merely home educating their children had to leave Sweden in order to live and educate their children in countries that are more tolerant and are respecting their human rights.

Among those who had to leave their native country because of this governmental persecution of home educators is Jonas Himmelstrand, the president of the national home education organizations of Sweden ROHUS, who left Sweden in 2012 [6].

Mr. Himmelstrand’s decision was also based on his substantiated fear that social workers might seize their children in response to their decision to educate them at home.

According to the news website New American, local school officials reported the Himmelstrand family to the social services in November of last year when their 7-year-old son did not show up at the local school. Mr Himmelstrand — like many other homeschoolers in Sweden — was forced to meet with local officials to explain himself.

Himmelstrand went to the social services and asked the social services if they would guarantee that his family could remain in Sweden safely. They said no, matter-of-factly stating that to homeschool safely, the family would probably have to leave country.

The following month, the family received a letter explaining that the authorities had decided to impose a fine of about $26,000 – $13,000 per parent. “At that point we kind of felt like, are these people crazy?” Himmelstrand told The New American in a telephone interview. “Don’t they realise that would ruin our family?”

The Himmelstrands responded with a letter asking officials to clarify whether they intended to split up their family based on this political principle. The family also told authorities that they would leave as exiles before allowing themselves to be destroyed by the punitive fines.

The local government responded with a letter imposing yet another fine. Mr. Himmelstrand said this was the last straw. 

The family moved promptly thereafter, not making the news public until everyone was safely beyond the reach of Swedish officials. Mr. Himmelstrand said he did not want to wait around to find out what the local government’s next move might be.

They moved to Aland, a Swedish-speaking island off the coast of Finland [7].

Himmelstrands family is just one of the families that had to leave Sweden and Germany because of state persecution for their legitimate educational choices [8].

Violations of Human Rights of Home Educators in Germany

The right of educational freedom is severely violated in Germany. Home educators are persecuted and could be deprived of their custody rights, fined or threatened with jail sentences. This is done under the unbelievable pretext that the uniform school education is necessary in order to preserve the pluralistic society and to prevent “the emergence of parallel societies based on separate philosophical convictions” [9]. This logic of prohibiting pluralism and diversity in order to preserve pluralism and diversity is, in our mind, totally opposed to the genuine logic of universally recognized human rights norms.

The Wunderlich family

In October 2012, state youth officials were granted formal legal custody of the Wunderlich children by a German court based solely on the fact that the family was homeschooling.

The children of the Wunderlich family were seized by the state authorities in a violent way just because their parents were home educating.

Dirk Wunderlich, father, described the frightening turn of events:

“I looked through a window and saw many people, police, and special agents, all armed. They told me they wanted to come in to speak with me. I tried to ask questions, but within seconds, three police officers brought a battering ram and were about to break the door in, so I opened it.

The police shoved me into a chair and wouldn’t let me even make a phone call at first. It was chaotic as they told me they had an order to take the children. At my slightest movement the agents would grab me, as if I were a terrorist. You would never expect anything like this to happen in our calm, peaceful village. It was like a scene out of a science fiction movie. Our neighbors and children have been traumatized by this invasion.” [10]

Andreas Vogt, the attorney representing the Wunderlich family whose children were seized in an early morning raid on August 29, says that the actions of social workers remind him of the harsh policies of the former communist East Germany. The Wunderlichs had not seen or heard from their children since they were taken and only knew that they were residing in some kind of group home.

The children were later returned to the family by the court on the condition that they would attend an ordinary school. The family was also denied the possibility to leave the country with the children in order to home educate them in a country where it is permitted.

Given that no charges were ever brought against the parents other than their home educating their children, the only reason for this violent interference into their family life was the educational choice of the parents. It’s also necessary to note that no claims were made that the education provided by the family was in any way inappropriate or of unfitting quality [11].

The Schaum family

Thomas and Marit Schaum, parents of nine children educated at home living in the German state of Hesse have also faced state persecution for their legitimate educational choice. In 2013 in order to stop them home educating a sentence of six months’ imprisonment for each of the parents has been issued by penalty order – without a formal trial. Thomas Schaum (51) and his wife Marit (48) from the German state of Hessia have been accused of  “permanently and obstinately obstructing compulsary school attendance” by the authorities and the state attorney. As a result of the trial the parents were criminally convicted and fined over 1,200 euros (about $2,000) for not sending their children to school [12].

The Dudek family

In 2008 the parents of a homeschooling Dudek family in the German state of Hesse have each been sentenced to three months in prison for the “crime” of educating their seven children at home [13]. In 2009 the jail sentence was overturned by the higher court and substituted with criminal fines. Many times this family was criminally fined for home educating their children. In 2011 regional school officials have threatened to “take custody of the children from the parents” or to “transport the children to school by force.” [14]

In 2013 Daniel Dudek applied to spend a second semester at the “Südringgauschule” in order to obtain his secondary school certificate at the school. He was rejected by the authorities and was ordered to start in 9th form. The state’s supervisory school authority in Bebra, Germany stipulated a fine against the 16-year-old student because he had declined to attend the ninth grade of the Südringgauschule in Herleshausen [15].

[1] This paper was prepared by the “For Family Rights” NGO and FamilyPolicy.RU AG (Russia) using open sources and the information provided by the Home School Legal Defense Association (USA). Presented by Pavel A. Parfentiev (FamilyPolicy.RU AG) at the side event at Geneva UN Headquarters on 11th of June, 2014 (organized by OIDEL).

[3] This approach sometimes prevails even in the international human rights jurisprudence, especially in the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. See e.g. ECHR decisions in Konrad vs. Germani, no. 35504/03 of 11/09/2006. We evaluate this decision as departing from the clear genuine spirit of the universal Human Rights principles stated in the UDHR and being based on the unbalanced and extremely dubious reasoning.

[9] Based on the reasoning of the German Federal Constitutional Court, see: ECHR decision in Konrad v. Germany, 35504/03 of 11/09/2006.

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