Human rights education is all learning that develops the
knowledge, skills, and values of human rights.

A history lesson on the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, or the Holocaust can be a human rights lesson if the teacher encourages students to see universal principles of dignity and equality at stake in these events. An advocacy group's efforts to address hunger in the community through outreach and legislation can become human rights lessons. A shelter's provision of protection to the homeless or victims of domestic violence can also educate both those who offer services and those who need them. Any day care facility, classroom, or nonprofit organization that promotes respect, fairness, and dignity is instilling human rights values, even if they are not identified as such.

Efforts to define human rights education in the 1950s and 60s emphasized cognitive learning for young people in a formal school setting. By the 1970s, most educators had extended the concept to include critical thinking skills and concern or empathy for those who have experienced violation of their rights. However, the focus remained on school-based education for youth with little or no attention to personal responsibility or action to promote and defend rights or effect social change.

A New Tool for Learning, Action, and Change

The limited initial application of human rights education excluded the majority of the population: adults who had finished school or those who had never had the opportunity to attend. However, the rise of human rights activism in the 1960s and 1970s brought with it a growing recognition of the potential of the human rights framework to effect social change and the importance of human rights awareness for all segments of society. Furthermore, as economic integration and advancement in communications have brought all parts of the world closer together, human rights are increasingly recognized as a unifying moral force that transcends national boundaries and empowers ordinary people everywhere to demand that their governments be account able for the protection and promotion of their human rights. This new awareness is not limited to educated elites or developed countries. Around the globe, grass-roots organizations of all kinds are using the human rights framework to advocate for social change, for example opposing violence against women, toxic dumping, child labor, and lack of housing or health care as human rights violations. As a result, these groups are providing innovative human rights education to the communities they serve—the poor, refugees and immigrants, indigenous peoples, gays and lesbians, rural and migrant peoples, and minorities of all kinds. They have effectively redefined human rights education in the process.

The Right to Know Your Rights

The mandate for human rights education is unequivocal: you have a human right to know your rights. The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) exhorts "every individual and every organ of society" to "strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms." Article 30 of the UDHR declares that one goal of education should be "the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a government "may not stand in the way of people's learning about [their rights]."

Human Rights Education in the United States

Using the older, schools-only conception, many countries established human rights as an essential component of the school curriculum decades ago. As a result their current populations have a high level of understanding about human rights. However, in the United States human rights education is still in its beginning stages. Although virtually every high school in the country requires a course on the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, very few people study human rights in schools or even at the university or graduate level.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) brought human rights education to national attention for the first time in September 1985 with a groundbreaking issue of its periodical Social Education dedicated to the topic of human rights. Articles stressed the human rights dimension of traditional social studies topics like the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, and the Emancipation Movement. In an influential article, "Human Rights: An Essential Part of the Social Studies Curriculum," Carole L. Hahn, then national president of the NCSS, argued for the global perspective and democratic attitudes fostered by human rights education.

In the same year, Amnesty International USA organized its Human Rights Educators' Network and in 1989 began producing Human Rights Education: The 4th R, the first US periodical in this new field. In 1991 the Human Rights Educators' Network of Amnesty International USA published a defining rationale for human rights education that reflected the expanding definition of the field:

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION declares a commitment to those human rights expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the UN Covenants, and the United States Bill of Rights. It asserts the responsibility to respect, protect, and promote the rights of all people.

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION promotes democratic principles. It examines human rights issues without bias and from diverse perspectives through a variety of educational practices.

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION helps to develop the communication skills and informed critical thinking essential to a democracy. It provides multicultural and historical perspectives on the universal struggle for justice and dignity.

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION engages the heart as well as the mind. It challenges students to ask what human rights mean to them personally and encourages them to translate caring into informed, nonviolent action.

HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION affirms the interdependence of the human family. It promotes understanding of the complex global forces that create abuses, as well as the ways in which abuses can be abolished and avoided.1

In 1986 David Shiman had published the first human rights curriculum in the United States, Teaching about Human Rights,2 which has been followed by a steady stream of new resources in the field, notably Betty Reardon's Teaching for Human Dignity (1995)3 and the establishment of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Education Series in 1998. Another significant stimulus was the 1992 meeting of human rights educators sponsored by the Columbia University Center for the Study of Human Rights with the support of the Organizing Committee of the People's Decade of Human Rights. Many US human rights educators met for the first time at this seminal meeting and formed working alliances that have resulted in significant projects such as Human Rights USA, a partnership of Amnesty International USA, the Center for Human Rights Education, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, and Street Law, Inc. Sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Human Rights USA sought to raise human rights awareness and celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998.

As a result of such efforts, human rights education in the United States has become a recognized educational force. However, it remains to find an established place in the mainstream educational system. Instead it has flourished in alternative settings: non-profit organizations, extracurricular groups like Amnesty International's campus chapters, alternative educational settings, and communities of faith. See Part VII, "Human Rights Education Resources," p. 155, for a list of US organizations engaged in human rights education.

The UN Decade for Human Rights Education

Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, the United Nations General Assembly has called on Member States and all segments of society to disseminate and educate about this fundamental document. In 1993 the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna reaffirmed the importance of human rights education, training and public information, declaring it "essential for the promotion and achievement of stable and harmonious relations among communities and for fostering mutual understanding, tolerance and peace."4 In response to an appeal by this World Conference, the General Assembly proclaimed the period 1995 to 2004 the UN Decade for Human Rights Education.

In proclaiming the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education in December 1994, the General Assembly defined human rights education as "a life-long process by which people at all levels of development and in all strata of society learn respect for the dignity of others and the means and methods of ensuring that respect in all societies."5 The Assembly emphasized that the responsibility for human rights education rested with all elements of society--government, nongovernmental organizations, professional associations, and all other sectors of civil society, as well as individuals.

The Plan of Action for the Decade further defines human rights education as "training, dissemination and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights through the imparting of knowledge and skills and the molding of attitudes which are directed to:

a) The strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;

b) The full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;

c) The promotion of understanding, tolerance, gender equality, and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and racial, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups;

d) The enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free society;

e) The furtherance of the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."6

During this Decade, the UN is urging and supporting all its Member States to make information about human rights available to everyone through both the formal school system and popular and adult education.

1 Quoted in Human Rights Here and Now : Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ed. Nancy Flowers (Minneapolis: Human Rights Educators’ Network, Amnesty International USA, 1998) 20.
2 Shiman, David. Teachi ng Human Ri ght s (Denver: Center for Teaching International Relations, 1986; 2nd edition, Teaching about Human Rights, 1999).
3 Reardon, Betty A. Educat i ng f or Human Di gni t y : Learning about Rights and Responsibilities
(Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).
4 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, Part I, pars 33-34 and Part II, pars. 78-82.
5 General Assembly Resolution 49/184, 23 December 1994.
6 Plan of Action of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), para. 2.