Social Education 58(7), 1994, pp. 427-429
National Council for the Social Studies
The UN Decade for Human Rights Education
We are now in the midst of the Decade for Human Rights Education proclaimed by the General Assembly of the UN. Two general objectives have been defined for this decade: (1) that all human beings are made aware of the rights accorded to them by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international instruments for its implementation; that they know that procedures exist for the redress of violation of these rights; and that they are aware that political authorities and citizens can be held accountable for rights violations; and (2) that societies become more fully informed of the problems that impede the realization of human rights and awakened to the possibilities for the resolution of these problems.
As we help students to develop capacities for such judgment making, we can teach them about the standards, how to use them to assess the actions of their own and other nations, and how to act on this knowledge.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Which of the standards should be taught to what groups of learners and within what frameworks are questions teachers must decide. To help make those decisions, the following recommendations are offered. For all learners from middle school through secondary, begin with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted in 1948. As a "Declaration" of principles with no obligatory legal enforcement attached to it, the thirty principles of the UDHR have nevertheless become the basis of virtually all of the other standards. They can be used as a diagnostic tool for determining what constitutes the major social problems of the world. Events in the news can be reviewed in terms of their specific consequences for the fundamental rights proclaimed in the UDHR, and students could make a map of world problems defined in terms of the concepts articulated in the Declaration.
A Holistic Values Approach to Human Rights Education 1
Human Dignity and Integrity are the center of a web of concepts that constitute the essence of human rights education. Dignity is defined as the fundamental, innate worth of the human person. A good society honors the dignity of all human persons and expects all members of the society to respect the dignity of others. Integrity refers to the wholeness of the many facets of the human person: physical, mental, aesthetic, and spiritual. The good society provides for the expression and development of the multiple facets of the human person and holds them to be inviolable.
From this core emerge all of the other values that give rise to specific concepts of human rights. Five values constitute the framework for a holistic values approach: economic equity, equality of opportunity, democratic participation, freedom of person, and a sustaining and sustainable environment.
Economic Equity embodies the belief that everyone has a right to the fulfillment of basic survival needs so that no one suffers unnecessary deprivation. It is on the basis of this value that the poverty imposed by an inequitable distribution of the world's wealth is viewed as a violation of the human rights of the impoverished. It implies the responsibility to work for distributive justice.
Equal Opportunity calls for all members of society to be given a chance to develop all of the human capacities with which they are endowed. This value has led to defining racism, sexism, and colonialism as human rights violations, and society assuming responsibility for social justice.
Democratic Participation is embedded in the belief that people are entitled to exercise power and make decisions in regard to public and social issues, asserting their civil and political rights. They have the right to participate in formulating the policies that will affect their lives and in decisions about the use of public resources. Democratic participation requires the acceptance of the responsibility of citizenship on the part of all citizens.
Freedom of Person is the fundamental notion of the Western tradition of human rights. It asserts that persons have the right to control their own bodies, minds, and spirits, choose their own ways of life, and move freely where they will, if it does not adversely affect others, neglect important responsibilities, or cause harm to the community. It is the value that rejects slavery, unjust imprisonment, torture, enforced prostitution or pregnancy, and restriction of movement within or between countries. This right is fulfilled by the responsibility to refrain from and prevent infringement upon the freedom of others.
A Sustaining and Sustainable Environment encompasses the latest definition of human rights-rights that may be claimed not only by individuals but by human groups and by humanity itself. It is derived from the assumption that maintaining life is essential to the continuance of the human experience and to the ongoing struggle of humankind to attain its full humanity. A sustaining environment implies the right to circumstances that enable persons and groups to make a living, the right to economic and social development, the right to peace, and the right to a healthful environment. It also entails individual and group responsibility for preserving the health of the environment itself.
These five value concepts provide the tools for elaborating alternatives to the negative events that dominate history books and major news stories. Notice that it is toward positive social ends that the standards are directed. Education has always been directed toward the achievement of such goals. Education for global responsibility finds these goals in the UDHR and the other international standards. They constitute the primary content of education for global citizenship.
Teaching Human Rights Conventions in Our Courses
The Universal Declaration is the core content, and the various conventions offer extensions of that content through which a deeper, more complex study of the major global issues and the events of modern world history can be pursued. The conventions offer an especially constructive starting point for teaching twentieth century world history, each of them emerging from a particular set of events or problems, and together forming an important force in the trend toward world community. Among these issues and events in world history are genocide in general and the Holocaust in particular, the plight of the world's children, poverty and underdevelopment, the situation of women, political repression and torture, the future of the indigenous peoples, and the environment.2 These topics are suitable, indeed necessary, content for senior high school. However, even in lower grades where, in more and more cases, the Holocaust is being taught, the International Convention on the Punishment and the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide should be introduced, and its meaning and relevance should be addressed even if its text is not presented. To be true to the concept of universal ethical principles, such studies should refer to other genocides, historical and contemporary.
By the end of high school, students should be familiar with conventions now in force, the issues behind them, and the role of citizen groups and nations in working for their adoption as part of international treaty law.
Highlighting Principles from Conventions and Case Studies of Global Citizenship
Teachers can illuminate the principles embodied in the conventions through the study of conditions that gave rise to their drafting and adoption. They can also demonstrate how social activism and the exercise of political responsibility were mobilized to confront specific assaults on human dignity. The role of citizens and non-governmental organizations in the development of the texts and ratification of these international laws is a highly instructive example of the political efficacy of individual and group action at the world level. The history of the conventions provides case studies of the actual exercise of global citizenship.
Although the actual texts are not readily accessible to most students, there are many useful materials based on them available from the UN and other sources, and in some cases there are excellent simplified versions of such major conventions as the one on the Rights of the Child and on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.3 Simplified popular versions of all the conventions are needed for instructional purposes.
The Evolution of Human Rights
Human rights have been defined out of the lived history of human beings. This is why the concept of "generations" of human rights offers such a fruitful framework for teaching history as an evolution of human rights. Existing human rights concepts can be placed in the context of what has been called "modern history," and the evolving, and yet to be defined human rights concepts can be identified as "post modern," or the human rights of the "ecological age." Thus, the first generation or category of rights to have been defined is that of the political and civil rights articulated as the rationales for the democratic revolutions that closed the eighteenth century. The second generation is that of the economic and social rights generated by the socialist and workers movements of the nineteenth century. The twentieth century produced the third generation, the "solidarity" rights sought by groups with common identity or experience. The rights to self-determination of peoples and self-identification of ethnic groups are articulated in this generation. As the twentieth century closes, a fourth generation claimed on behalf of all humanity may be emerging. The students of today will define this generation.
In learning global responsibility, students can consider the following questions.
What is or is not ethically acceptable policy and practice? An inquiry into how different cultures seek to implement the principles of human rights provides a values-based approach that respects cultural diversity. Such an analysis helps demonstrate the great variety of possible approaches to the realization of the universal human values, often found in the basic tenets of the world's major religions. It would also help to deepen understanding of the primacy of ethical principles over particular cultural or political practices in the making of value judgments in global affairs, and help to transcend the common notion of "our way is the best, if not the only way," which stands as such a barrier to cross-cultural cooperation.
When is action to change social conditions justifiable? When asking students to formulate positions on such issues as humanitarian intervention to relieve people suffering from severe need or victims of human rights abuses, or the imposition of sanctions to induce nations to change practices deemed unjust, the UDHR and other standards provide the most relevant guidelines.
For example, if a government is known to permit, or itself carry out torture, the Convention on Torture can be reviewed as a basis for a decision to impose sanctions or take other punitive measures against that government. Such measures can be assessed in other terms than the interest of one group over others, or the moral superiority of one nation over another. The standards can be used to assess the behaviors of all nations, accusers as well as accused. They provide the frame of reference for the ethics of a global community.
Preparing for Active and Effective Global Citizenship
To deepen student understanding of a global citizens' movement, inquiries can be addressed to the relevant non-governmental organizations about their actions to promote particular conventions. Examples are the actions of Amnesty International in support of the Convention on Torture, and of Defense for Children International on behalf of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Students themselves can become involved in such organizations, working to inform the public or lobbying the government to ratify particular conventions. In the study of the process of formulating, drafting, adopting, and ratifying conventions, students can also learn much about the UN, international relations, and the intersections of national policies and world affairs. They can come to comprehend more of the complexities of national sovereignty and the role of international law in the management of the affairs of the world community.
No One Approach Is Best
There are various approaches to the study of human rights: historical, problem-centered, values analysis, international relations, and others. None of these is exclusive of or superior to the others. However, in using human rights to achieve four main goals of global education (understanding the international system, knowledge of practical approaches to non-violent conflict resolution, comprehension of the fundamental conditions of peace, and appreciation of other cultures), curriculum based on the international legal standards for the promotion and protection of human rights is probably the most productive. This is especially so when the goal is preparation for active and effective global citizenship. The standards provide the essential tools of citizenship in a complex world of sovereign nations and diverse cultures inextricably linked within one planetary system. We are one human species. Our survival depends on our tolerance for diversity and universal recognition of human dignity. These universal standards should be central to all human rights education.
1 This selection comes from Educating for Human Dignity: Learning About Rights and Responsibilities; A K-12 Teaching Resource by Betty Reardon.
2 Conventions that can be used for such study include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1951); Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1981); Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987); Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (1993); and the various Environmental Conventions.
3 See the article on the List of Resources in this issue, pp. 453-457.
Betty A. Reardon is Director of the Peace Education Program, Teachers College, Columbia University. She serves on the Coordinating Committee of the People's Decade for Human Rights Education, and is the author of Educating for Human Dignity: Learning About Rights and Responsibilities; A K-12 Teaching Resource, to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, in 1995. Portions of this article are reprinted from that book by permission of the publisher.