Part I
C. Why? The Goals of Human Rights Education


International human rights documents provide inspiring goals for human rights education. For example, the first words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaim that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." However, to achieve, freedom, justice, and peace, people must also address concrete social and economic needs, such as poverty and discrimination, and political crises, such as war and political repression. Thus effective human rights education has two essential objectives: learning about human rights and learning for human rights.

Learning About Human Rights

Learning about human rights is largely cognitive, including human rights history, documents, and implementation mechanisms. All segments of society need to understand the provisions of the UDHR and how these international standards affect governments and individuals. They also need to understand the interdependence of rights, both civil and political and social, economic, and cultural. Human rights should be the "4th R," a fundamental of everyone's essential education, along with reading, writing, and "rithmetic."

Some groups, especially in formal education, emphasize cognitive and attitudinal goals for human rights education. For example, the 1985 recommendations of the Council of Europe on the "Teaching and Learning of Human Rights in Schools" (Recommendation R(85)7) give primary importance to historical and legalistic learning and seem to add "action skills" as an afterthought:

1. Knowledge of the major "signposts" in the historical development of human rights.

2. Knowledge of the range of contemporary declarations, conventions, and covenants.

3. Knowledge of some major infringements of human rights.

4. Understanding of the basic conceptions of human rights (including also discrimination, equality, etc.).

5. Understanding of the relationship between individual, group, and national rights.

6. Appreciation of one's own prejudices and the development of tolerance.

7. Appreciation of the rights of others.

8. Sympathy for those who are denied rights.

9. Intellectual skills for collecting and analyzing information.

10. Action skills.7

The action skills described are mainly interpersonal, such as "recognising and accepting differences," "establishing positive and non-oppressive personal relationships," and "resolving conflict in a non-violent way." Recommended skills more relevant to social change are "taking responsibility" and "participating in decisions," which imply participation, planning, and decision making. The final recommendation for social skills is "understanding the use of the mechanisms for the protection of human rights at local, regional, European and world levels,"8 which epitomizes the priority human rights education in schools gives cognitive learning, especially of the legal bases of human rights.

Like the recommendation for European schools, the Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies of the US National Council for the Social Studies stresses cognitive learning. These standards make many references to the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic and these specific recommendations for learning about human rights:

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of global connections and interdependence, so that the learner can:

IX.e. analyze the relationships and tensions between national sovereignty and global interests, in such matters as territory, economic development, nuclear and other weapons, use of natural resources and human rights concerns;

IX.f. analyze or formulate policy statements demonstrating an understanding of concerns, standards, issues, and conflicts related to universal human rights;9

However, the development of action skills are limited to recommendations such as "X.j. participate in activities to strengthen the 'common good,' based upon careful evaluation of possible options for citizen action."

Schools in general are conservative. As the principal institution for the socialization of children, as well as the source of basic education, they usually embody the values of the communities in which they exist. In addition, they may reflect government efforts to use schools to pursue political objectives, such as shaping attitudes on patriotism, religion, family planning, alcohol and drug use, and minorities. Some governments necessarily regard teaching human rights in schools as contrary to their own interests.

However, even educational authorities that enthusiastically promote human rights education tend to focus on citizenship, historical and legal learning, and interpersonal relations. They, as well as parents, are wary of having the schools used for perceived "political purposes" and are unreceptive to programs that seem to manipulate students to take social action beyond the classroom. Further more, while educators have recognized methods for delivering, testing, and evaluating cognitive learning, few feel as comfortable with learning that aims at attitude change. For all these reasons, human rights education in most schools remains primarily limited to "learning about human rights."

Learning For Human Rights

Education for human rights means understanding and embracing the principles of human equality and dignity and the commitment to respect and protect the rights of all people. It has little to do with what we know; the "test" for this kind of learning is how we act.

This more personal objective includes values clarification, attitude change, development of solidarity, and the skills for advocacy and action, such as analyzing situations in human rights terms and strategizing appropriate responses to injustice. Only a few people may become full-time activists, but everyone needs to know that human rights can be promoted and defended on an individual, collective, and institutional level and be taught to practice human rights principles in his or her daily lives. And everyone needs to understand that human rights are linked with responsibilities: to observe human rights principles in one's own life and to defend and respect the rights of others.

For example, in contrast to the Council of Europe goals, the pedagogic principles of the Peruvian Institute for Education in Human Rights and Peace (IPEDEHP) emphasize the integration of cognitive and affective learning in its education for grassroots community leaders:

Principle 1: Start from Reality — All learning must be based on the needs, interests, experiences, and problems of the participants.

Principle 2: Activity — Learning must be active - through a combination of individual and group activity.

Principle 3: Horizontal Communication — Learning takes place through dialogue in which people share their thoughts, feelings, and emotions in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Principle 4: Developing the Ability to be Critical — One must develop the capacity to be critical and to evaluate ideas, people, and acts in a serious fashion.

Principle 5: Promoting the Development and Expression of Feelings — It is only possible to learn values if the training methodologies take into account participants' feelings.

Principle 6: Promoting Participation — The best way to learn is by participating, being consulted, and taking part in making decisions.

Principle 7: Integration — Learning is most effective when the head, the body, and the heart are integrated in the learning process.10

The ultimate goal of education for human rights is empowerment, giving people the knowledge and skills to take control of their own lives and the decisions that affect them. Some educators regard this goal as too political for schools and appropriate only to nonformal education. Others see it as essential for becoming a responsible and engaged citizen and building civil society.

One Practice, Many Goals

In this new field, the goals and the content needed to meet these goals are under continual and generally creative debate. Among the goals that motivate most human rights educators are —

  • developing critical analysis of their life situation;
  • changing attitudes;
  • changing behaviors;
  • clarifying values;
  • developing solidarity;
  • analyzing situations in human rights terms;
  • strategizing and implementing appropriate responses to injustice.

The Guidelines for National Plans of Action for Human Rights Education prepared for the UN Decade for Human Rights Education by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights include the following chart, which outlines goals on a developmental scale, as well as concepts, practices, and issues.

Click here for the Developmental and Conceptual Framework for Human Rights Education

7 Quoted in Richard Pierre Claude, Methodologies for Human Rights Education. New York: Peoples Decade for Human Rights Education,1997. Available on line at
8 Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers, Recommendation No. R (85) 7. Available on line at
9 Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994.
10 Marcia Bernbaum, "You Have Rights: Know Them, Promote Them, Defend Them," in HRE, Issue 4. London: Amnesty International, 1999, p. 4; and "Marco Conceptual y Metodologico," TÈcnicas participativas para pducar en derechos humanos y en democracia. Lima: Instituto Peruano de Educacion en Derechos Humanos y la Paz, 1998.