Utilizing the Power of Human Rights Education

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership April 01, 2016

Each year on December 10th we celebrate International Human Rights Day where we commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which outlined a blueprint for societies built on principals of equality, dignity and non- discrimination. Although not legally binding, its core values inspired an array of human rights instruments, primarily the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) that placed duties and developed accountability mechanisms for signatory States to respect, protect and fulfil the rights enshrined within them.

Although these diverse instruments exist, our interaction with them remains distant. Our knowledge and rhetoric of human rights remains closely linked to our environment; where we grew up and how that society understands and uses, or does not use, the language of rights. This often varies between, and within, countries and is entangled in discussions on culture, citizenship and politics. For many the subject remains in the abstract, diluting its scope and potential for application. There is an evident gap between the international human rights framework and its mainstreaming across all levels of society.

If we agree that the principals of equality, dignity and respect are crucial for building cohesive societies, then we must consider how schools – which play a central part in the socialization of our children – impart these values.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” E. Roosevelt

In a world that requires collective approaches to tackle its most pressing problems, human rights create a shared language for schools around the world to understand global issues, develop rights-centric perspectives and discuss ways to challenge them.

An excellent attempt to address this knowledge gap was developed by Amnesty International through its Human Rights Friendly Schools initiative. Its assumption was reasonable – increasing people’s knowledge of international human rights norms and instruments should challenge (and change) behaviours and attitudes in communities, allowing (over time) for a global human rights culture to arise.

Built around 10 Global Principles for Human Rights, derived from international human rights standards, instruments and norms including the UDHR, ICESCR, ICCPR and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the initiative provides a step-by-step formula for any student, teacher, school leader or minister to kick-start the transformation in their after-school clubs, classrooms and schools.

The initiative has seen diverse applications. In Moldova, students were the driving force behind the inclusion of a module on ‘Education for Human Rights’ into the formal curriculum. Although optional, it has seen 2,000 students sign up to it since the beginning of the school year in September. Its inclusion was supported by the Ministry of Education, who approved a curriculum, handbook and teachers guide. Both students and teachers have observed the value added, voicing that human rights education provides life skills that other subjects do not; it empowers students to freely and respectively express views, encourages active citizenship, and enables students and teachers to deconstruct negative behaviours such as prejudice in meaningful ways.

Accra High School in Ghana developed a system of shared leadership between its Student Representative Council and the school leadership, who underwent training to establish an accountability process to encourage transparency in school decision-making and allow students to influence policies within the school community.

In Villiers High School in London, students and teachers have a working relationship designed to develop mutual respect in the school community. Students are empowered to act as Learning Advisors; their role is to observe teachers and offer feedback to the teaching process. This enables teachers to understand the students’ needs and allows them to plan classes together.

Thus, human rights education does not simply mean education about the Bill of Rights and the duties of signatories – this is of course an important element of it, but it is not the only one. Nor does it mean to impose a ‘rights versus culture’ dichotomy. Rather, human rights education seeks to create school communities where every voice is respected and participation is encouraged. Through inclusive, participatory and democratic methods, it aims to impart awareness and practice of our rights, empower learners to exercise their rights and protect the rights of others. It seeks to create active and aware learners who are engaged in their communities.

Developing a culture of human rights in schools will certainly be an essential consideration for countries hosting refugees, where educational institutions will be vital in assimilating them into their new societies. We have already seen stigmatization of refugees across Europe in the media – in these contexts schools should be playing a central role. In human rights friendly schools the word ‘refugee’ would not be a slur, it would be a category explored in the context of the Refugee Convention, in a space where students could question thoughts and opinions, and develop an understanding based on facts. For many this would teach tolerance and shatter stereotypes developed in external surroundings we cannot control. Human rights education is a powerful tool for critical thinking and for sustainable community building – it’s time to commend its purpose, recognize its need and embrace its application – universally.


For more information on Amnesty International’s Human Rights Friendly Schools initiative or to download the guide please go to their website.