The global movement for human rights education.

Author:Flowers, Nancy

The 1948 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." Despite this clear mandate, human rights education (HRE) got off to a glacially slow start everywhere in the world. The Cold War brought about a long delay: the Soviet Union and its allies regarded the civil and political rights proclaimed in the UDHR as a threat to their one-party governments, while many western countries regarded its social and economic rights as "leftist" or "communistic." It was, in fact, radical teachers in the Global South who showed the world the power of HRE to further both civil-political and social-economic rights.

HRE in Latin America

During the 1970s, opponents of the oppressive dictatorships that dominated Latin America found in HRE a tool for nonviolent social change. Especially in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru, activist educators used both popular education and the existing formal education system to reach the working class and the urban and rural poor with grassroots programs that emphatically condemned the violation of human rights and called for a restoration of democracy, along with the recognition of popular and political organizations. HRE became an essential component of popular resistance.

Describing these early efforts, Peruvian activist educator Rosa Maria Mujica Barreda recalls:

We felt that violence and human rights violations worsened every day ... We needed to work against violence, to develop opportunities for peace, and to accept that education was an important element in this purpose ... [W]e decided to work mainly with teachers, for they can be found all over the country, have a key role in their communities, and are in charge of developing consciousness and awareness. Also the teaching profession had become one of the places where those who defended a violent solution to the problems of Peru confronted those who stood for human rights. (1) Deeply influenced by Brazilian educator Paolo Freire's The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and his concept of critical pedagogy, human rights educators across Latin America understood HRE as much more than a conceptual or curricular content like math or history. For them, HRE was a task of political and cultural awakening that required personal transformation, as Argentine educator Monica Fernandez describes:

The skills necessary for the promotion of human rights education are more cultural than curricular. There is a clear epistemological difference between teaching human rights and promoting human rights education. The former is linked to theoretical transfer. The latter tries to develop cultural habits. The strategies of cultural transformation need an ethical and political commitment with constant criticism and reflection. (2) As more democratic governments began to replace these dictatorships in the 80s, many of these courageous students and teachers went on to became leaders for educational reform in their respective countries, working to integrate HRE concepts and methodologies developed through political struggle into national curriculums and teacher-training institutions. They built important national and international networks that continue to train teachers and social justice advocates. (3) This on-going movement for HRE has received strong support from the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, an autonomous international academic institution dedicated to the teaching, research and promotion of human rights among the countries party to the American Convention on Human Rights (1969).

As the cycle of political persecution came to an end, the fight for human rights in Latin America has shifted to become a struggle for economic, social, cultural, indigenous, and environmental rights. Here too Latin American educators continue to lead the rest of the world in theory, policy, and methodology.

HRE in the Philippines

HRE in Latin America provided both inspiration and models for young activists in the Philippines opposed to the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos. In the early 1980s, teams of students went out into slums and rural areas to teach human rights to fisherfolk, farmers, and the urban poor. Their efforts directly contributed to the so-called People Power Revolution, the sustained campaign of popular, nonviolent resistance that culminated in 1986 with the overthrow of Marcos. (4)

The new Philippine government immediately passed legislation requiring HRE in schools, for the civil service, and for all "arresting and investigating personnel." The new Constitution of 1987 introduced many new human rights provisions including the establishment of the Commission on Human Rights, an independent office with responsibility to "establish a continuing program of research, education, and information to enhance respect for the primacy of human rights." (5) Such a constitutional mandate for HRE was a global landmark, but it has also served to illustrate a global conflict between top-down and bottom-up efforts: sustained HRE requires both that grassroots movements be institutionalized and that legislative mandates be implemented. Everywhere in the world, HRE requires time to be fully realized.

HRE in Asia

The imperative of substantial time for effective HRE is nowhere better demonstrated than in some abortive efforts of the UN to use HRE in post-conflict situations, of which Cambodia is a prime example. In early 1992, HRE was specifically mandated in the peace accords that ended decades of civil war and established UNTAC, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia. The time frame was ridiculously short--eighteen months--and the circumstances dire: most educated people who might have served as teachers or interpreters had been murdered or forced to flee. Furthermore, HRE on such a scale had never been attempted. As Stephen Marks, who headed UNTAC's Human Rights Component, observed, there was neither sufficient time for laying long-term foundations nor sufficient "experience by which to judge the effectiveness of such campaigns." (6)

The fact that a peace treaty would explicitly call for HRE was another milestone. At the same time, it illustrates a kind of optimistic naivete that continues to bedevil HRE: programs are often designed and goals set without a realistic understanding of what it takes to do effective HRE.

Another example of HRE-in-a hurry were efforts in Thailand to educate about the new Constitution of 1997, which conferred new powers to the Thai people, explicitly acknowledging many human rights for the first time and establishing the National Human Rights Commission. Several NGOs, such as the Canadian Human Rights Foundation and Amnesty International, collaborated with the Thai Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice to design programs to educate the general population about these new rights. However, although the intentions were genuine, the investment in time and resources was insufficient to do more than provide information. Building a culture of human rights requires decades, not years.

Both the Thai and Philippine experience illustrate the importance of national human rights institutions in furthering HRE, especially in Asia. Unlike most parts of the world, Asia lacks a regional human rights treaty with a transnational body to monitor that governments respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. Perhaps more than in any other part of the world, cultural differences among individual countries and attitudes toward human rights as "western values" create a prevailing resistance to HRE in formal education. As a Chinese presenter at a 2001 national HRE conference in Beijing declared, "Why do we need the Universal Declaration? The constitution of the People's Republic and our Confucian tradition provide us with all the human rights education we need!" (7)

HRE in Africa

Changes in law and/or regime are often the impetus for HRE programs. For example, the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995, which expressly provides for a set of basic human rights to be interpreted according to the Universal Declaration, initiated a nationwide effort to teach about the new constitution and the UDHR. However, as in Thailand and other HRE initiatives that focus on legalities, these were informational and short-lived rather than inspirational and sustained.

In dramatic contrast to short-term, legalistic HRE is the example of South Africa. Although HRE was a relatively new concept within post-apartheid educational discourse, it had roots in the long struggle for a non-racial and democratic education system, especially the People's Education (PE) movement, which shared with HRE the Freirian principles that education is political and should be personally empowering and transformative.

Even before 1994 and the first universal adult suffrage election that brought in the Mandela government, NGOs like Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), the Street Law Project, and Amnesty International were already working to prepare South Africans for participatory citizenship and to lay the foundations for building a culture of human rights. With the establishment of a new regime, HRE, especially in the formal sector, became a major strategy for nation building:

Transforming the education sector and the curriculum has...

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