"Human rights education is a priority - more concrete action is needed"

[06/10/08]  Human rights can only be realised if people are informed about their rights and know how to use them. Education about human rights is therefore central to the effective implementation of the agreed standards. While this was emphasised 60 years ago when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, we are still far from ensuring that people know their rights and understand how to claim them.

The good news is that human rights education is receiving much needed attention at the European or international level. Resolutions have been adopted, conferences held and action plans issued by the United Nations agencies, not least UNESCO. The Council of Europe is particularly active in this field. Non-governmental organisations have also initiated valuable programmes.

The current challenge remains one of translating these recommendations into concrete action at the national level. Human rights education needs to be more than a simple repetition of the various legal conventions with little explanation as to their relevance to ordinary people in their daily lives.

My experience is that a number of governments have not given sufficient priority to human rights education in schools. The allocated time is limited and the pedagogic methods unsuitable. The emphasis has been on preparing the pupils for the labour market rather than developing life skills which would incorporate human rights values.

More worryingly, it seems that some governments fear that a human rights approach in the schools could breed unwanted criticism and even undermine government policies. This is an undemocratic and short-sighted attitude. Educating citizens in their human rights creates an informed society which in turn strengthens democracy. For the Council of Europe, therefore, human rights education is crucially important.

International actors should focus efforts on assisting countries to develop their own programmes, with education materials tailored to the particular needs of individual countries. The UN World Programme for Human Rights Education, which started in 2005, aims to give guidance on how such national efforts can be planned and enforced. ‘Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights', one of the projects currently being run by the Council of Europe, builds on the experience of a network of national coordinators.

A European resource centre on education for intercultural understanding, human rights and democratic citizenship (the European Wergeland Centre) will open in the autumn in Oslo. The centre will carry out and support research, provide in-service training for teachers and disseminate information and serve as platform and meeting place for relevant actors. Countries can indeed learn from one another.

The school system will certainly remain at the root of making young generations aware of their rights and how to use them. Not only should the school provide the key facts about human rights norms and the mechanisms for their protection, it also has a vital role to play in fostering values such as respect for others, non-discrimination, gender equality and democratic participation.

Inter-cultural understanding and respect have to be stressed in such learning. When the Convention on the Rights of the Child lists values to be promoted, it makes special mention of respect for ‘the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own'. Human right education should therefore be committed to an inclusive approach to societal diversity(1).

School curricula, education materials, pedagogic methods and the training of teachers have to be in conformity with such ambitions. At the same time, it is crucial that life in schools benefits from a human rights atmosphere. There should be both ‘human rights through education' and ‘human rights in education'.

The school itself must demonstrate that it takes human rights seriously. Pupils should be welcome to express their views and to participate in the running of the school as much as possible. The atmosphere in school should be characterised by mutual understanding, respect and responsibility between all actors. I have seen such schools and noticed that they tend to function much better than those run on an authoritarian model. Pupils learn social and other life skills, not only facts.

Teachers and principals have a key role for developing such schools. In addition, they need the support of local and central authorities and not least the Ministry of Education. Educational policies should promote a rights-based approach. Teacher training for all teachers, regardless of their specialisation, should be conceived along this model. Pedagogic methods should be promoted which are democratic and participatory and the textbooks and other education material should be consistent with human rights values.

The fact that many children now spend more time with screens than with teachers (or with their parents) also affects human rights learning. While the technology is value-neutral, the messages picked up or sent may not be. Efforts by the school in the field of human rights may be undermined by impressions on the screen, often dictated by purely commercial interests.

The school has to relate to the supply on the net and be prepared to take the necessary discussions. However, as important is that human rights thinking and discussion is provided through the new media – which certainly is a major challenge in the light of the commercial and private nature of the media landscape.

Extra efforts are also required in order to ensure that minorities and disadvantaged groups are reached in human rights education programmes. This requires that basic materials are produced in relevant languages, teachers are recruited from within these communities and that the pedagogic methods are culturally adapted.

Respecting human rights, disseminating information on the existing standards and making people aware about their rights are commitments which states have willingly entered into. These words should be put into deeds.

Thomas Hammarberg


1.  See the recent study on human rights education in Europe by Claudia Mahler, Anja Mihr and Reetta Toivanen (Eds.) The United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education and the Inclusion of National Minorities, Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt a.M., 2008


Also available at the Commissioner's website at www.commissioner.coe.int.

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