The UN Resolution declaring the Decade for Human Rights Education, 1995-2004, states:
Human rights education should involve more than the provisions of information and should constitute a comprehensive life-long process by which people at all levels in 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.1
Thus all learning that contributes to the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights is part of human rights education. This broad definition includes a wide range of content, but also some common fundamentals, regardless of who the learners are. In its 1993 declaration, the World Conference on Human Rights stressed that "human rights education should include peace, democracy, development and social justice," as well as "humanitarian law, . . . and rule of law."2
Widely Related but a "Poor Relation"
Human rights education shares goals and methodologies with many other forms of education in both the formal and informal sectors. In schools human rights are often introduced with the study of history (e.g., the World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Rights Movement) or classes on government, civics, economics, or current events, as well as through extracurricular activities such as Model UN programs, debate clubs, or campus groups like Oxfam and Amnesty International. Both in and out of schools, human rights principles are often linked with character education, values clarification, peace education, conflict resolution, service learning, and religious studies. In higher learning, human rights is usually taught in political science, government, anthropology, international relations, history, law, foreign language, business, and philosophy courses.
Human rights can be regarded as the common feature or point of intersection of many recent trends in education such as conflict resolution, law-related education, development education, issues-related education, peace education, anti-bias education, multicultural education, and global education. Like all of these, human rights is easily marginalized in a curriculum increasingly driven by standardized testing and a "back-to-basics" approach that excludes many kinds of integral learning. However, while these trends are subject to the fluctuations of educational fads and fashion, human rights remains a constant as a value system that informs them all.
The field of education where human rights values and principles are most consistently and fully taught is early childhood education. Although seldom labeled "human rights," the social skills of cooperation, respect for self and others, and responsibility are emphatically a form of human rights education and taught at perhaps the most formative period of life.
What is almost universal to these subject areas and educational trends, however, is that human rights knowledge and skills are rarely taught as an end in and of themselves; instead they are linked to other subject areas. Indeed the majority of people in the United States never receive any formal education in human rights. Although educators work to legitimize human rights across the established curriculum, the current endemic neglect may also carry one long-term advantage: human rights has not been confined to being "just a school subject." As an ethical framework for how all institutions, including schools, should treat people and set policies and priorities, human rights education needs to be brought to people of all ages and from all elements of society.
"What's it got to do with me?"
Communicating the content of human rights is the easy part in that it can be accomplished through traditional methods. Affecting attitudes and values is a much more difficult, slow, and idiosyncratic process that will never be accomplished if this education fails to come "close to home," to involve individual experience, aspirations, and deeply held values. Because human rights include everyone personally, both as individuals with inherent rights and as members of the community, learning about human rights must relate the "deep knowledge" of personal reality as well as the "hard knowledge" of factual content. Otherwise educators may be conveying information but inspiring neither commitment nor action.
Similarly, mastering the skills of human rights goes beyond "book learning." Analysis, advocacy, lobbying, and reporting can be studied and discussed, but they can only be mastered by direct personal engagement in those actions. Thus, human rights education cannot be detached from human rights advocacy any more than learning about citizenship can be separated from participation in society.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as Primer
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is at the heart of all human rights education. Unlike subsequent and increasingly technical documents, everyone can understand and cherish the UDHR. It has symbolic, moral, and practical significance as the constitution of the whole human rights movement, and its grand simplicity of language and inspiring vision are accessible to people of all ages and conditions. It has not only legal authority, but also poetic power. Understanding the UDHR and how its principles can be introduced into everyday life is the ideal introduction to human rights education.
People need to read the UDHR and understand the implication of its articles. They also need to know something about how it came into being and the historical influences that contributed to it, as well as the important ways this document has shaped the history of our times.
Admittedly the UDHR has limitations. Some important issues like indigenous peoples' and environ mental rights were not included when the Declaration was written in 1948. Many such additional concerns are addressed in the later human rights conventions that have built on and elaborated the general principles of the Declaration, but even activists with a particular concern, such as refugees or women, should first know the UDHR before turning to specialized conventions like the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Once grounded in the UDHR, most people will recognize that they need to learn more. Usually people want to know what local, national, and regional law reinforces their human rights and how to use it to call violators to account. They often want information about persons and agencies responsible for promoting and protecting human rights. The job of the educator becomes less to teach than to facilitate in identifying the resources that people need to inform themselves.
Human Rights Principles
The Universal Declaration is informed by some basic principles, repeated and reaffirmed by subsequent human rights documents. People need to understand these and be able to relate them to real-life situations. (See chart below.)
Human Rights History and Documents
For a basic understanding of human rights, people also need to grasp how the Universal Declaration relates to subsequent human rights documents, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). They also need to be able to grasp the historical influences and context in which these documents were created. For advocacy it is essential to know the process by which human rights law comes into being and the obligations a government assumes when it ratifies a human rights convention.
As people learn more about the framework of international human rights law and understand its implications for advocacy, they will want to go further, investigating particular issues of concern in the light of the documents that define rights and the mechanisms that enforce them. Knowing how to seek out further information is also a key component of learning about human rights documents. See "Content for Learning Chart," p. 39.
Human Rights Issues
Issue-related education that focuses on human rights problems is unavoidable because it is usually through crises, wars, and oppressive governments that people come to recognize and fight for their human rights. However, an approach in terms of issues must be counterbalanced with a view of human rights as establishing norms and standards for everyday life to which everyone is entitled simply by being human. Learning to see the world through a "human rights lens" and recognizing both rights violated and rights defended is basic to human rights education. See "Content for Learning Chart," p. 39.
Human Rights Values and Skills
In order to use knowledge to effect change, human rights education must include both abstract attitudes and practical skills for individuals and institutions alike.
The fundamental learning is individual. Everyone needs not only to accept personal responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights, but also to know how to do so at the level of individual interactions, including interpersonal relations in the family and community. Also essential is honest self-examination, coming to understand and acknowledge the personal biases that everyone holds. The best teaching is the good example of others, starting in early childhood, but mastering life skills like respect for differences and conflict resolution require a lifetime of conscientious practice.
Such personal skills extend to community institutions and organizations. No teacher can teach equality and respect for all in a classroom that does not strive to practice these principles. No organization can promote the good of the community if it does not treat those who work for it and those whom it serves with dignity. Like individuals, institutions need to exercise on-going self-examination, measuring their policies and practices against human rights values.
Some of the best skill-building experiences for young people and adults alike can be found through active engagement in the community, as participating citizens and as contributing volunteers. Community service work can hone skills for constructive social change, such as problem analysis, collaborative leadership, and consensus building. Service learning, in which community action is linked to the school curriculum, provides a vital link between cognitive and experiential understanding of social issues. For example, a social studies unit on immigration might lead to an examination of current immigration patterns and the local presence of refugees and immigrants. Resulting student projects might be to learn about and address the needs of new members of the community such as tutoring or baby-sitting for young children, English lessons, or introductions to local social services.
Many activists also need highly specialized skills to document and oppose human rights abuses. Like other skills, these too can be learned in a classroom setting but require first-hand practice and systematic evaluation. Often the expertise of a human rights lawyer, an experienced community organizer, or a professional evaluator is needed. With the help of such consultants, activists can master the skills they need to accomplish social change. The critical factors are to take responsibility for their own human rights education, to know where to find the help they need, and to put such learning into practice. See "Content for Learning Chart," below.
Debates over Content
Because human rights are a part of many subject areas and approaches in formal education and have such wide political and social application, little agreement exists about what should be taught. In most cases, the purpose determines the content, but ideological and political positions also influence what educators think should be covered in human rights education.
"Civil and political rights are the only human rights!" In the United States, many people think they know human rights because they know the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. No one can graduate from a US high school without passing a course on the Constitution, but few are aware that this venerable document omits all social and economic rights, even the right to education. Consequently most people in the United States believe human rights are only civil and political. A recent survey by Human Rights USA, a collaborative initiative dedicated to educating about human rights, showed that 93% of people in the USA have never even heard of the Universal Declaration, much less its Article 25, which guarantees them (in the gender-obtuse language of 1948) "a standard of living adequate for the health of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services." With this limited perspective, not only does the average US citizen not recognize hunger and housing as human rights issues, but neither do most advocates for the hungry and the homeless. This approach is also frequently shared by those doing human rights education from the perspective of civics, democracy, or citizenship education.
"Survival rights first!" By contrast, in some countries human rights are equated with so-called "fundamental rights": the rights to survival and the necessities of life. As a former African dictator said as he suspended civil and political rights, "'One man, one vote,' is meaningless until accompanied by the principle of 'One man, one bread.'" According to these "Fundamental Rightists," until such basic requirements are met, knowing about other rights is irrelevant. The danger is, of course, that only those in power can determine when the country is "ready" to learn about civil rights or women's rights or environmental rights. (The wait is apt to be a long one!) A fundamental principle of human rights is the interdependence and indivisibility of all rights, with none taking priority over others.
"The heart knows!" Yet another point of view considers formal human rights education superfluous because "People intuitively know their rights." According to these "romantics," because human nature and human needs define human rights, we naturally know these "in our hearts." The pitfalls of this position are all too evident, relying as it does on the same kind of vague "natural law" or "god-given rights" that might equally persuade people of their racial superiority or justify invading another country. Furthermore, those who claim their human rights on such subjective grounds are easily dismissed, especially by those with a legal orientation.
"Know the law!" Not surprisingly, most of those who define human rights education as the knowledge of international human rights law are lawyers. In their view, if you can't tell an optional protocol from a claw-back clause, you can't know about human rights. Certainly the evolving body of law is essential to the establishment of universal human rights. However, a strictly legal approach devalues the real-life stories and struggles of ordinary people and does not help them to frame personal experience in human rights terms. Instead it cultivates a small elite of experts and disempowers potential activists.
"Educate for social change!" Many value human rights education principally for its potential to bring about changes in social conditions:
Human rights education, as critical thinking, moral reflection, and meaningful experiences, which contribute to an understanding of power-relations and power-structures, is both a tool for and the process of the struggle for social change and for the implementation of human rights. By enabling learners to examine discourse and power structures critically and creatively, human rights education opens a dynamic and evolving space which can accommodate diverse and changing communities and contexts without, though, imposing a specific mode of action on them. Thus human rights education and the struggle for social change are in a constant dialectical relationship along the path to empowerment and justice.3
While acknowledging the need to know about human rights documents, this perspective on human rights education puts prime importance on "collective assertion of rights struggles."4 For example:
Human rights education should create opportunities to raise critical questions on the global and national role of multinational corporations and agencies and international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank.5
This challenging, political approach makes human rights education especially effective with oppressed and minority groups but often unacceptable within formal education structures, where educators face legal and ethical strictures about using schools for purposes of "indoctrination."
"Don't rock the boat!" Many people working in the public school system, who face the critical scrutiny of both educational authorities and community, take a much more cautious approach to human rights content, stressing documents, history, and heroes, and usually approaching the subject from convenient opportunities afforded by the curriculum (e.g., the Holocaust, the UN, the Civil Rights Movement, or current events). This approach is clearly reflected in the Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies of the National Council for the Social Studies.6 Some link human rights to community service, service learning, or extracurricular activities (e.g., Amnesty campus groups, Model UN), but the approach remains essentially promotional, not adversarial or transformational.
"It's purely academic!" Educators at the college level have far greater freedom in the choice of content than those in elementary or secondary schools. However, they tend to develop specialized courses for particular academic departments (e.g., public health, women's studies, political science, international affairs, history) that lack any action component. In truth, very few courses in human rights are taught in any higher institutions in the USA, even in law schools.
Conclusions on Content
In addition to these approaches there are others that look at human rights through the perspective of a single issue (e.g., child soldiers, homelessness, violence against women) or with a limited application (e.g., training police, preparing teachers). People inevitably seek out the information they believe they need; however, at the minimum everyone should have exposure to the documents, the principles, and the issues from both an objective, intellectual perspective and from a subjective perspective. Whatever the content of human rights education, people need to "bring it home" to their daily lives and personal behavior and understand that rights come with responsibilities for action, to respect and defend those rights for everyone.
1 General Assembly Resolution 49/184, 23 December 1994.