Teaching the transformative agenda of the universal declaration of human rights.

Author:MacNaughton, Gillian
Position:Essay
 
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Neoliberalism has dominated the world for over three decades and now permeates our laws, policies, and practices at the international, national, and local levels. At the international level, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the European Union all support trade liberalization, privatization of public services, and the primacy of markets over people. At the national level, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and many other countries similarly support this neoliberal agenda, despite the violations of human rights that result from, for example, austerity measures imposed on those worse off to subsidize the risks taken by those with the greatest wealth. Many of our students have grown up in this neoliberal context and fail to recognize that the current world order was created by our laws, policies, and practices, and that this world order is not inevitable.

Indeed, neoliberalism has become so ingrained that it has become invisible and many of us no longer notice when new agendas conflict with international human rights laws and principles to which almost all countries in the world have committed themselves. In this context, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) enshrines a transformative agenda--a framework for moving from a world order designed by a few elites for their own benefit to a world order for the benefit of everyone.

Adopted in 1948, immediately after World War II, to implement one of the four goals of the new United Nations Organization, the norms and aspirations elaborated in the UDHR provide a framework for a radically different world than the one we have today. Although the United States initially played a central role in supporting the UDHR-Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights responsible for drafting the instrument--the content of the UDHR is not well-known in this country. Indeed, myths about "international human rights" abound. It is not uncommon in the United States, for example, for people to believe that human rights are about abuses that occur in other countries, not here in the United States. This belief is often linked to the perception that human rights are largely about war crimes, genocide, apartheid, and criminal prosecutions for such gross violations of human rights. Otherwise, human rights, as understood in the United States, are often limited to individual civil rights, such as freedom of speech, and freedom of religion, as well as the prohibitions against slavery and torture. Little is known in the United States--or in much of the rest of the world for that matter--about, for example, the right to the benefits of science (article 27), the right to human rights education (article 26), or the right to periodic holidays with pay (article 24), which are enshrined in the UDHR as well as other international human rights instruments.

Anglo-American countries have traditionally focused on individual civil and political rights, while largely ignoring economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as collective rights (Neier 2006). The UDHR, in fact, includes a full array of individual, family, community, societal, and international level rights. Individual rights include, for example, the right to freedom of opinion (article 19) and the right to be free of hunger (article 25). Family rights include the right to protection of the family as the fundamental unit of society (article 16) and the right to an adequate standard of living for a family (article 25). Community rights include the right to form trade unions (article 23) and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community (article 27). The rights of the people of a nation include the right to a government that represents the will of the people (article 21). Finally, article 28 of the UDHR--addressing the rights of all of humanity--provides: "Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized."

Much of this holistic vision of human rights in the UDHR has been lost after decades of neoliberal governance. In this article, we revisit the content of the UDHR, beginning with the right to a social and international order in which everyone's rights can be realized, and consider other key provisions that conflict with neoliberalism, including the rights to the benefits of science, to full employment and decent work, to progressive realization of free higher education, to nondiscrimination on the grounds of economic status and to solidarity. We also share some activities that we use in the classroom and online to make the transformative agenda of the UDHR visible to students and demonstrate how far we have strayed from the aspiration of a world in which everyone enjoys his/her human rights. The article concludes that teaching the holistic vision of the UDHR in a neoliberal world is a radical human rights curriculum.

Before delving into the less well-known provisions of the UDHR, we should introduce ourselves and the context of our teaching. Diane Frey is a social scientist with a PhD from the London School of Economics (LSE) in International and Comparative Employment Relations. Gillian MacNaughton is an international human rights lawyer with a DPhil in Law from the University of Oxford. Together we have taught undergraduate and graduate students in Europe at LSE, Oxford and the University of Sarajevo, and in the USA at Northeastern University, Brandeis University, the University of Massachusetts Boston, the National Labor College, Harvard University Extension School, and San Francisco State University. The students in our courses have been diverse and come from many countries around the world. For example, up to 80 percent of the students in the course on human rights-based approaches to development at Brandeis University were from developing countries. The class in Sarajevo was the least diverse in that all students came from European countries. We mention this diversity because it has played an important role in teaching the holistic vision of the UDHR. The following ideas for teaching the transformative agenda of the UDHR have been successful in all these contexts, despite the varied understandings and misunderstandings of human rights across countries and regions.

The Right to a Social and International Order

Many introductory courses in human rights begin, quite naturally, at the beginning of the UDHR and may or may not get to the economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) located in articles 22-27. We like to begin with a broad overview of the UDHR. We introduce it by asking students to read the full document, which is only 30 brief articles long, and then vote for the five rights that are most important to them personally. Then we take a tally--either in class if it is a small group or online with a larger group--and examine the results. Inevitably, almost all the rights in the UDHR receive at least one vote. The right to rest and leisure is one right that is often overlooked, however, while the right to education is often a highly rated right. When students discuss the reasons for the disparities, it becomes clear that the right to education may have received so much support because it is a group of students voting. On the other hand, the right to rest and leisure may not have received any votes because there are no domestic workers in the class as they generally do not get any time off to take courses. Students from different countries may also prioritize different rights. Based on the analysis that is generated in the class, students draw the conclusion that the full range of rights in the UDHR must be recognized and enforced to protect the rights of all...

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