Part 2: The Right to Know Your Rights

Frequently Asked Questions About Human Rights Education

We learn about the Bill of Rights in school. Isn’t that enough?

The rights contained in the US Bill of Rights are mainly civil and political rights, such as the right to a fair trial, to assembly, to free speech, and worship. Human rights, however, also include social, economic, and cultural rights that are not included in the US Constitution or Bill of Rights, such as the rights to adequate housing, health care, and a living wage.

Human rights also reflect a broader value system than the Bill of Rights and other sources of "legal rights" in the United States. Human rights are not related to citizenship in a particular country. Human rights also include how individuals relate to each other, not just how people and governments relate. Every human being has the right to know about and enjoy these rights.

How can I teach human rights when I have never studied about them? What if I can’t answer people’s questions?

Few of us had any opportunity to study about human rights during our formal schooling. This is part of the problem. The foundation of all learning is inspiring interest, curiosity, and personal connection to the subject matter. Research shows people of all ages remember and integrate best when they participate in their learning. You don’t have to know all the answers to facilitate human rights education; you do have to know how to help people, including yourself, look for answers. "Experts" can evoke passivity, boredom or a sense of incompetence, especially if they present human rights from a strictly legal perspective. You need not be an expert with a legal background. You do need to be willing to be part of the learning process. Therefore the most effective educational techniques in human rights education, as reflected in this book, offer a high level of active participation, using techniques such as role plays, debates, discussion, drama, and small group work.

How can knowing about human rights make any difference in the work I do in my community?

Many people are engaged in human rights work without knowing it! Because Americans usually define "rights" as those civil and political rights guaranteed in the US Bill of Rights and other laws, many people working for social, economic, and cultural rights do not recognize that they too are human rights advocates. As a director of a battered women’s shelter who attended a human rights training observed, "Until today I never thought of myself as a human rights worker. Now I want every woman who comes to the shelter to know that she has a human right not to be beaten. And I want our organization’s brochure to state this too – right at the top of the first page."

Organizing around human rights provides a common vision and value system. Rather than working in isolation from each other, people working on social justice issues can unite around the shared framework of human rights. In this way, once understood and claimed, human rights can serve as a powerful tool to spark hope for the future and effect change.

How do you know human rights education works? Does it really change attitudes and behavior? What proof is there?

Because human rights are a new frontier in education, little research is yet available. Useful analogies can be drawn, however, to law-related education, values education, character education, global education, and anti-bias education. Although measuring changes in information levels is easy, changes in attitude are difficult to quantify, especially as they can take place over a period of years. Can we test for an increased respect for human dignity? Clearly this is an area where much work is needed. Many human rights educators have witnessed first-hand the power of using the human rights framework to change students’ attitudes and behaviors. One social worker engaged in human rights education for the past five years commented, "I have seen my students become respectful individuals who have hope and commitment to making the world a better place."

How do you teach human rights to people whose rights have been abused (e.g., the homeless, people in prison, people with disabilities, refugees)?

No matter what your audience, always draw on people’s experience. If human rights education doesn’t address their lives, it won’t matter much. Always tailor what you teach to your audience.

On the other hand, in an effort to achieve relevance, don’t neglect the interdependence and indivisibility of rights. Refugees, for example, not only need to know about their rights as refugees but also about the full spectrum of rights (e.g., their rights to education, shelter, freedom of movement, and self-determination).

Isn’t human rights education just for schools?

Just as all people everywhere have the same human rights, so people of every age need to know and understand about their rights. The content and goals are much the same at all ages; only the methodologies vary. A young child learns somewhat differently from a teenager, and a judge or a resident in a battered women’s shelter learns somewhat differently from a union organizer, a social worker, or a police officer. Although an informed facilitator can be helpful, adult groups can educate themselves about human rights using activities like those in Part III, "Introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Emphasize for all age groups –

  • people’s lived experience
  • interactive methodologies rather than lecture, which often results in passive listening
  • rights as evolving ideas that are shaped by people’s needs
  • rights can sometimes conflict, requiring thoughtful evaluation
  • universality, i.e., that human rights transcend any political, religious, or cultural perspective

How does one advocate for human rights and still maintain respect for cultural, religious, and other differences?

Human rights are universal. On the one hand they apply to everyone regardless of culture and beliefs. On the other hand, they guarantee the right to practice and advocate for those differences.

By their very nature human rights are subject to conflict. One person’s conscientiously held belief (e.g., that one race is superior to all others) can violate another’s human dignity and human rights. Human rights education includes exploring solutions to these kinds of conflicts, both those that occur in the local community (e.g., the right to free speech vs. the right to protection from "hate speech") and those that occur on a global scale (e.g., the right to practice one’s culture vs. protection from harmful traditional practices). Resolutions are seldom easy and sometimes impossible. Nevertheless, placing such conflicts in a human rights framework is essential to their full understanding. And resolution can only come through attitudes of equality and respect and through the skills of negotiation, mediation, and consensus building, all fundamental to human rights education.

Where do human rights fit into an already over-crowded school curriculum? Especially into subjects other than social studies?

Human rights education works best when woven into the fabric of existing curriculum. It’s a way of thinking about the world, not just subject matter to cover. Teachers can find opportunities everywhere to engage and challenge their students about human rights.

Ideally human rights are taught across the school curriculum. Although social studies classes make the most obvious fit, many subjects can be viewed from a human rights perspective. For example, Part III, "Introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," provides questions to apply to many topics both within and beyond the curriculum:

Human rights education also provides many opportunities for service learning, community service, and youth advocacy projects.
See Part IV, "Taking Action for Human Rights."

Isn’t human rights education too political for schools?

Knowing about human rights makes people better able to participate in the social and political life of their communities. However, it is important to distinguish between political and analytical skills and party politics and political ideology. Educators have a great responsibility not to become propagandists or to push students towards a specific political position or party. Human rights education must be exploratory, open-ended, and problem solving. It should also call on the learner to identify and strive to eliminate injustice.

Won’t human rights topics distress people?

Human rights education should not focus only on rights abuses, which can be disturbing and dismaying to people of all ages. While human rights education may include teaching about violations, it also provides a value system that condemns those actions and upholds human dignity. Human rights education also offers people the skills to take action to prevent such abuse, as well as to advocate for the realization of human rights.

Indeed, educators need to shield children and some adults, such as former victims of abuse, from the brutality of human rights violations (e.g., Amnesty’s Children’s Edition Urgent Action letter writing appeals edit out explicit details of abuse). However, everyone can be inspired by the vision of a world built upon principles of human dignity, respect, and justice where such abuses do not occur.

What’s the difference between human rights education and moral education, peace education, law-related education, development education, multicultural education, global studies, citizenship education, or conflict resolution? Where does human rights education fit in?

These different forms of education share many common features; all include acquiring knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Human rights education, however, provides a shared value system where all intersect. For example, peace education incorporates human dignity and the right to peace and security. Multicultural education reflects the human rights principles of nondiscrimination and participation in one’s own language, culture, and religion. Law-related education enables students to measure US law against international human rights standards.

Human rights should be part of all these educational movements!

Isn’t human rights education anti-American? Doesn’t it criticize our country?

The UDHR set a standard by which to assess the human rights achievements of all countries, including the United States. No country has a perfect record. Human rights education acknowledges the successes, identifies the shortcomings, and encourages citizens to work for improvement. In regard to many human rights, the US is an acknowledged leader (e.g., freedom of speech, press, religion); in other areas clear deficiencies exist (e.g., health care, equal education, housing).

What materials do I need to teach human rights?

This book has all the material you need to get started:

1. Basic human rights documents and definitions (Part V, Appendices)
2. Background information on human rights history and mechanisms (Part I, Human Rights Fundamentals)
3. Activities for learning (Part III, Activities)
4. Teaching strategies (Part II, The Right to Know Your Rights)
5. Action ideas (Part IV, Taking Action for Human Rights)
6. Resource list of human rights materials (Part V, Appendices)

The only other requirements are people with the desire to learn and the willingness to meet and talk together.

What resources are there to assist me in human rights education?

For speakers, trainings, videos, curriculum materials, books, and consultation, contact the Human Rights USA Resource Center:

Human Rights USA Resource Center
310 Fourth Avenue South
Suite 1000
Minneapolis, MN 55415-1012

Tel: 1-888-HREDUC8
Fax: 612-341-2971

Web Site:



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  Human Rights Fundamentals The Right to Know Your Rights Activities Taking Action for Human Rights Appendices