What is Human Rights Education?

education about, in and for human rights..

A multitude of definitions for Human Rights Education (HRE) are available, and human rights educators are continuously attempting to define their work.1 What follows is an introduction, which is by no means all-encompassing, to a variety of definitions and viewpoints regarding HRE that may broaden our outlook when debating the future HRE of the MSI. For more information on HRE, see Resources.

One of the most cited definitions from a well-renown human rights educator, Nancy Flowers, in The Human Rights Education Handbook, stipulates that:

Human rights education is all learning that develops the
knowledge, skills, and values of human rights.

For a more comprehensive definition, a UN General Assembly Declaration defines HRE as “education, training and information aiming at building a universal culture of human rights through the sharing of knowledge, imparting skills and moulding of attitudes directed to:

  1. strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;
  2. the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;
  3. the promotion of understanding, tolerance, gender equality and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and racial, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups;
  4. the enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free and democratic society governed by the rule of law;
  5. the building and maintenance of peace;
  6. the promotion of people-centred sustainable development and social justice."

HRE encompasses not only knowledge and skills – learning about human rights and mechanisms for their protection, as well as acquiring skills to apply them in practice, but also seek to develop values, attitudes and behaviors which uphold human rights. In addition, HRE includes an action element – taking action to defend and promote human rights.2

A different source divides HRE into three categories: cognitive, attitudinal, and skills training. The following are examples of what these may include, however not all may be appropriate to a particular course:

A. Cognitive: the idea of human rights and its development, related events in history, students’ rights and responsibilities in every-day life, how to identify and examine HR violations, international and national laws and institutions, main international institutions and NGOs concerned with the protection of HR etc.

B. Attitudinal: attitudes emphasized include a sense of empowerment (“I can do that; I can help; my help can make a difference.”) Empowerment can e.g. be derived from knowledge that one has rights and that the state is obliged to protect them. However, empowerment may initiate different thoughts: (a) help to make the system work, or (b) to seek to destroy it, violently if needed.

Another characteristic that HRE promotes is an attitude of self-help. Meaning that learners realize each person’s responsibility to think and act, and not to wait for someone else, or the ‘system,’ to act on their behalf.

HRE also seek to develop trust, not only towards co-learners, but also toward individuals and groups/organizations. This particularly refers to reliance on others to reflect and respond to each other’s needs. (For good and bad, a society with a high level of trust runs ‘smoother.’)

Other values that HRE seek to promote are subjective and thus plentiful, however a few includes empathy, caring for one’s self and others, self-reliance, commitment to fairness, equal treatment, and non-discrimination for all (discrimination almost always bring with it a denial of someone’s rights).

C. Behavioral and Skill Development: includes a variety of skills necessary to protect and promote HR – research and problem-tackling skills, social skills, communicative skills, action skills.3 These range from analyzing newspapers for finding HR elements, promoting HR activities for local organizations, public speaking, creative group thinking, conflict resolution skills, networking, basic human rights advocacy skills etc. Skill-training may also be focused around building personal self-esteem and consciousness so that learners are not left disillusioned, but face real-life situations with the belief that one can make a change and encourage others to work together.

In sum, HRE is unique due to being (a) an education for a social purpose (e.g. promoting a HR culture), (b) prospective as well as retrospective (= inherently transformative?) and (c) based on international legal and moral norms claimed to be universal (thus HRE is different from peace education for instance).4

Additional comments,

The content of HRE is defined by the peoples’ experiences. Attention should be directed towards adopting the training, curriculum and lesson plans to the local context; local problems and methods, and the resources available.

Human rights is not a subject that can be studied at a distance. Students should not just learn about the Universal Declaration, about racial injustice, or about homelessness without also being challenged to think about what it all means for them personally. As human rights educators, we must ask our students and ourselves, "How does this all relate to the way we live our lives?" The answers to this question will tell us much about how effectively we have taught our students.5

Regardless of differences of definitions, what is clear is that HRE is not simply transfer of information and knowledge in a lecture-based manner. HR standards ought to also be reflected within the classroom. HRE assumes that everyone has a right to express oneself and that individual differences will be respected, and as such participatory pedagogies have been proven to be the most effective for HRE. This requires a “horizontal” rather than a “hierarchical” education structure, where ideally the teacher at times takes up the role as a facilitator, and where an increasingly democratic structure allows the learners to be engaged to think and interpret independently.6 (See Methodology for more information)

The topics of HRE appear endless; however, the eventual choice of topics integrated into the curriculum depends on our assessment of the needs, interests, motivations, potential and social context of both the teachers and students in the particular secondary schools. Thus we begin a discussion of these elements in the forum, in addition to looking over the current curriculum and lesson plans of the ‘value education’ classes, in order to adopt and/or add an HR ‘lens’ and content.

To view debates over content of HRE, see the bottom of the webpage on Part III: The Content of HRE, Human Rights Handbook

Also take a look at Frequently Asked Questions about HRE (mainly directed towards HRE in the US) from human Rights Here and Now ed. by Nancy Flowers.

On a side note, provisions on human rights education have been incorporated in many international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 26), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (article 13), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 29), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (article 10), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (article 7). It should also be noted that 1995-2004 was the UN Decade of Human Rights Education where the UN urged its members to promote “training, dissemination and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights.”7

For additional sources, see Resources

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License