[PDHRE logo]
People's Decade of Human Rights Education

Hot Topics

Globalization: Human Rights in Trade & Investment

Seattle WTO Activities

Seminars on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Build a Human Rights Community!

Organization Overview & Activities Report 1995-2000

Human Rights Conventions: Summaries


Current Projects

Sharing Methodology & Learning Materials

Dialogue & Discourse

Get Involved!

Center for Human Rights Education

Related Links

Shulamith Koenig

An Age of Contradictions
The Political Nature of Human Rights
The Ideology of Human Rights
The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations


In this presentation I wish to discuss the relevance of human rights education to the world we all envisage for the twenty-first century. Those who are familiar with the People's Decade of Human Rights Education, know that ours is the nongovernmental organization (NGO) -that has successfully advocated international public policy with, by and for all sectors of society worldwide. One of our achievements was promoting a United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education, which was proclaimed by the United Nations in December 1995. A colleague and a friend Ivancka Corti, former Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, has recently been to Morocco where she visited with women in rural areas. Upon her return she said emphatically: 'There are millions of people everywhere in the world who will be born, live and die, and will never know that they are full owners of human rights, not to speak of being able to claim and secure them to improve their daily lives.'

This simple yet powerful observation of lvancka Corti tells us why human rights education at the community level is imperative for sustainable human development, without which sustained social transformation cannot take place. Until recently, human rights have for the most part been taught by law professors and human rights experts to those who are interested in human rights advocacy, or by human rights advocates lobbying for the enforcement of human rights and the monitoring of, mostly, political or civil rights violations. It is sometimes taught as a particular specialty in political science, history or as an aspect of international law, or by the occasional enthusiastic civics teacher in public schools. On the whole, human rights educators treat it as one subject among many, rather than integrating it in every subject. Furthermore, it is not highlighted by them as a holistic world view for which commitments and obligations have been developed to protect a value system that underlines our right to be human. This task may seem overwhelming and/or inspirational, but if we learn how human rights can relate to the daily lives and concerns of all women, men, youth and children, it is indeed as simple as ABC

Objectives, and even highly professional efforts, of human rights education often are disconnected from a commitment for action, and lack a determination that ail those who 'graduate' from any house of learning which move into the world with the knowledge about human rights as a social paradigm underpinned by legal instruments, and about human rights as history related to their concrete lives. Indeed, human rights is something that happens 'out there', in the remote realm of diplomacy. For most people, it does not mean that our institutions, back home, must enforce the same values which we try to impose on others.

We all need to learn from the isolated attempts being made to have people learn human rights as a viable and relevant part of their haves, a comprehensive value system created to allow people to live in a world of dignity with one another. More and more, concerned educators and community activists are now discovering that human rights education, if it is to make a real difference in the world, needs to become part and parcel of all education in the formal and non-formal arenas.

Furthermore, it must be integrated wherever learning takes place in the community, not just in the schools. It must disperse and penetrate every cell of the social tissue, filter across into all communities. In this way, it will become what it is meant to be: a potent tool to empower people of all ages, in all sectors of society, for mobilization and action to claim and secure their human rights, showing them, not just to combat specific human rights violations, but also to develop a critical analysis about the system that allows these and other violations to continue and grow. Certainly, we would all agree that it is not enough, as crucial as it is, to be reactive to current violations. While we do so, we need to build a society where human rights violations are inconceivable.

I will argue that only a dispersal and filtering across through human rights education of proactive human rights learning stands the chance to bring to an end the shocking contradiction we are witnessing day in and day out these days.

An Age of Contradictions

On the one hand, the past 50 years have seen a tremendous growth in the enunciation of human rights norms and standards: declarations, proclamations, plans and platforms of action, commitments and obligations partially or fully signed and ratified by all.

There is, however, another side to the coin and it is increasingly familiar these days. Ours may well be an age of rights, but it is also an age of human rights violations. Much of the cynicism we encounter in relation to the United Nations and the idea of universal human rights has precisely to do with these ongoing and growing economic and social violations, the growth of poverty, lack of health care, lack of education for all, and the new colonial movement of globalization oblivious to the basic needs of people that enable them to be human.

The first 20 years of the 50 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed, were decades of optimism, climaxing in what seemed as the n-tin of colonial empires and the thawing of the Cold War. It would be foolish to look away from the realities of the late 1940s and 1950s, with their parade of nuclear experiments, new forms of colonial repression, political repression, censorship, and staged trials on both sides of the Cold War. Still, it is probably fair to say that throughout these years and into the early 1980s there was a basic faith in the possibility of human progress and in the gradual withering of oppressive political systems through a concerted action by governmental and their people.

Democracy has slowly come to be regarded as the delivery system for human rights. But the world's arsenal of mass-destruction has grown steadily, and the past three decades have been witness to increasingly massive and flagrant human rights violations. Between ethnic cleansing, the return to 'respectability' of torture, arbitrary imprisonment the plight of ever larger throngs of street-dwellers in all major urban settlements, we can actually see situations now that are worse now than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

True, the communications revolution now gives us all instant access to atrocities in all and any part of the world, making it more and more difficult to look away from these violations; yet the violations continue and spread seemingly like wildfire.

More surreptitiously, and less vigorously documented by the mass media, the growth of the global economy has weakened the power of the very states which international standards have repeatedly designated as the protectors of human rights. We are witnessing the ongoing erosion of earlier hard-won conquests for social justice and human rights. As of today, in almost every country of the globe poverty, homelessness, joblessness, the unavailability of health care or education and the destruction of viable living environments are taken for the inevitable price of making industries competitive, increasing shareholders' profits, and, incidentally, of making available to limited sectors of humanity an unending stream of consumer products, many of them of the most trivial nature.

The massive violations as well as the more subtle corrosiveness are all well known and their denunciation has become a part of the routine political discourse. Yet the routine phraseologies cover up the lack of any systemic analysis and more disturbingly, widespread ignorance about the day-to-day reality of the processes which they supposedly describe.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the women's movement has been at the spear point of a vision of human rights education as an imperative for the construction of clear political and social actions against injustice and oppression facing groups as well as individuals. As women are dealing with the reality of the systemic oppression against women, it becomes clearer to them that the value system, the vision of human rights is a viable political framework and tool for analysis.

Following their lead, we must all acknowledge that effective human rights education is by definition political education, not just a process of delivering information about a legal paradigm.

The Political Nature of Human Rights

Before we go any further, allow me to define what I mean by the key words in the title of my presentation. I took these definitions from my Webster's Dictionary as follows:

Culture: the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, speech, action and artifacts and depends upon human capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.

Ideology: a systematic body of concepts about human life or culture; the integrated assertions, theories that constitute a sociopolitical programme.

Political: relevant to the total complex of relations between human beings in society.

I fully realize that I am entering a danger-zone when talking about human rights as a 'political ideology' and human rights education as 'political education'. At one end of the spectrum, there are those who feel resentful or uneasy about 'human rights' as being too vague, tooš soft'; what really needs to be promoted, they will argue, is civil and political rights, that should have priority over economic and social rights in the political discourse. Certainly, it might seem easier to speak of human rights education as learning about justice, equality, social transformation, ending humiliation and promoting dignity, while avoiding controversial, 'political' issues. For others, the words 'ideology' and 'political' evoke fears that using such 'fighting words' will create unnecessary obstacles to the realization of human rights and further limit our ability to introduce human rights education into all sectors of society.

I will try to answer as follows: Less than 50 years ago, the fledgling United Nations solemnly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which was reaffirmed the belief that, underlying and superseding all political cultures, there exist a number of absolutely basic and universal rights, and that an ideology based on their protection has in it the scheme to become the future ideology for a peaceful world.

Three years after the end of the Second World War, and as the war crimes trials were taking place, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an important symbolic 'closure' of the traumatic episode of the war and the atrocities it had entailed. People saw it as the opening of a new era, the birth of a peaceful and just culture for all of humanity. For while the Nuremberg war crimes trials had specifically addressed the issue of punishment for violations of international agreements ruling the conduct of war, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was setting this 'punitive' action within a larger frame. if peace was to have a chance, it would not be enough to just end the war, punish the war criminals and go back to business as usual. The midwives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shared a widespread belief that there could be no lasting peace unless there was economic and social justice in every country and in president Roosevelt's words: 'freedom from fear and want'. 1

50 years later, as former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghli put it in his inaugural words at the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, the language of rights has replaced all other moral languages and become 'an absolute yardstick', 'the common language of humanity' 2. By adopting this language and the behaviours it mandates, the international community has made human rights the ultimate norm of all parties. These parties include the people themselves, who are learning to speak this language. It is happening in fits and starts, and we all know the limitations, but human rights are slowly emerging as the only universal ideology-in-the-making. As Nelson Mandela pointed out, 'a new political culture is being born, one based on human rights.'

For professor Upendra Baxi, no single phrase in recent human history 'has been more privileged to bear the mission and burden of human destiny than [the phrase] "human rights".3 In his view, the greatest gift of classical and contemporary human thought is the notion of human rights. Indeed, more than any other moral language available to us at this time in history, the language of human rights is able to expose 'the immorality and ... barbarism of the modem face of power'.4

This happened through a combination of factors. For instance, and for the sake of argument, allow me to look at the history of the Cold War in a very simplistic way. An important facet of the Cold War was the battle between two ideologies: Capitalism and Communism, each claiming to bring forth the ultimate and just way of life. They pitched democracy vs. socialism. Unfortunately, between these two ideologies, these political systems, both were able to 'kit' democracy and socialism. Capitalism did so by making democracy a delivery-system for the markets, financial markets and oppressive trade agreements; and Communism by brutalizing and eliminating millions of people who refused to blindly march to the sound of the drum. In the process, Capitalism reinvented colonialism. Communism reinvented authoritarian rule. Weaving through the space they shared, the global economy was taking ever firmer root.

Still, within this context, human rights became one of the arenas in which the two systems agreed, each using it to condemn and expose the other. At the same time, all over the world, groups and individuals, reinventing the spirit of Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, following the path opened by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, have taken seriously the message of human rights. They kept the pressure up so that the oppressors were forced to 'take suffering seriously'.5 Under this pressure, authored by the struggle of people, the last 50 years have seen the development and signature of legal documents that include norms and standards dealing in many details with injustice and human suffering, making human rights violations illegal.

Thus, an ideology called human rights was constructed step by step and meticulously defined. Its norms and standards are anchored in a philosophy that draws on the best from democracy and socialism to proclaim an ideology of hope. The United Nations and NGOS, sometimes in a confused way, but with great obstinacy, have tried to translate this political philosophy and these legal texts into deeds.

In a series of world conferences - the United Nations Conference for Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), the World Summit for Society Development (Copenhagen, 1995), the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), the Habitat Conference (Istanbul, 1996), and the Food Summit (Rome, 1996) -powerful plans of action were laid forth. There are many compromises in these plans, and there is also a courage in adopting a new vision. Their common trait is the protection and betterment of human futures and the promotion of principles of human rights.

To quote Upendra Baxi again: We witnessed repeated and increasingly emphatic declarations of human rights, a proliferation of formal adherence to human rights unprecedented in human history. Human rights standards now relate to all kinds of rights: economic, social, cultural, civil and political; of individuals as well as collectives; and for all people: women, children, the old, indigenous peoples, migrant workers and their families, industrial workers and rural workers. Human rights norms outlaw abominations such as torture, genocide, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, racial and other forms of discrimination; they guide the activities of the UN and other actors) involved in development, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance. For better or for worse, these standards represent a beacon of light and hope for the world's ever-growing numbers of internally displaced person. 6

Taken together, existing international norms and standards and the proclamations and commitments resulting from these world conferences provide the basis for comprehensive action and mobilization against threats to human dignity and security: Not the least achievement of these conferences is that in them and through them the NGO movement has emerged as strong advocates for civil society. The international law of human rights developed in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has opened a space for creative social action dealing with the non-negotiable conditions of being human. This space should and must be open to all human beings, for us to reclaim and secured our individual and collective rights to be human. Behind the thicket of human rights, norms, standards and procedures, there lies the mutual recognition of our shared dignity as human beings, and of the things that endanger this dignity.

The Ideology of Human Rights

Through this recognition there is emerging a forceful political ideology for the future. Seen this way human rights education is indeed political education: going back to the definitions in my Webster's Dictionary it is 'learning about the total complex of relations between human beings and in society... education that enables human beings to participate in the decisions that determine their lives with knowledge and commitment'.

The proliferation of norms and standards, and the heavily mediatized coverage of violations mask an important, very sad fact, namely: too many still do not know that these rights exist, that their governments have agreed to protect them and that they can claim them, and awareness is essential to the very nature of human rights.

Most people still have a very vague notion not only of the content or form of human rights, but even of their own identity as citizens and active agents in the sphere of human rights. They are equally ignorant of the indivisibility, interdependence and interconnectedness of human rights. Politically and socially responsible individuals, activists even, are prone to see their particular struggle in isolation, rather than as one part of a larger body of concerns and actions called human rights. Those of us who do think in terms of human rights, often do so in the terms of 1948: human rights as abstract universal metaphors of progress, the embodiment of which is entrusted to the governments of hopefully democratic nation-states, possibly Kith the prodding of state recognized organizations and with enforcement by hopefully effectual international agencies. In other words, the international culture of human rights is widely perceived as operating primarily within the bounds of intergovernmental l diplomacy and negotiation as defined 50 years ago.

And finally, all too often, the same people who loudly talk about their human right to this or that fail to realize that their human rights and those of others are inextricably linked. They fail to see that each time one person's or one group's human rights are violated, their un-freedom endangers the freedom of everyone else on the planet.

On a day-to-day basis, politicians are often unaware or contemptuous of treaties signed by their own governments, and corporations are in any case unaccountable to these treaties. As for the wider public, even in tile European Union, elections to international bodies are still second-class events.

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

What is missing it would seem, is the connection between the diplomatic phenomenon of human rights and the day to-day political discourse. But that transmission belt already exists. It is called the NGOS, this remarkable, profuse, flowering of organizations that has played an increasingly central role in prodding the international agencies in their work, connecting what are still the disparate realities of the local and the global, of the involved citizens of the world and a world that does not yet have an arena for them to play properly political roles.

They have played an essential role, partly as lobbyists, as educators, despite the seemingly narrow specialization of their respective focus. Arguably, nongovernmental organizations played an important role in ending the Cold War, and it is the NGOs that are picking up the pieces after the Cold War. It is the NGOS- that are picking up the pieces as the global economy rolls on its way.

We are witnessing a powerful effective international economic reality which is sucking energy out of an existing political instruments. We have a powerful vacuum effect at work, and filling this vacuum is where the NGOs can really come into their own. In fact, they are already doing this. However, I argue that in the absence of a systemic unifying analysis, as provided by human rights, and can be developed by human rights education, NGOs will not be able to fully play the role offered them in filling this vacuum.

My colleague, Mado Spiegler, a historian and a staff member of the People's Decade of Human Rights Education, recently pointed out the similarity between the actual and potential role of the NGOs and the essential role played in the French Revolution by the 'clubs'. This disparate motley crew of little groups, big groups, each with their pet interest, their pet idea, could easily be dismissed as just discussion groups, some of them very witty, part of a very vital literary street-scene in eighteenth century France. Yet the 'clubs' were paving the way for a political reality. They represented a rising political elite for which the old regime had no allotted place. Mado Spiegler also pointed out the similarity with what had taken place earlier in the Middle Ages with the birth of the communes an over Europe. They could properly be said to be acting in a concerted fashion. But they were all responding to a common social and economic reality, and were inventing and reinventing political tools for that new reality. As she sees it, the communes were connected with the spread of literacy and the rising fashion for charters. The revolutionary clubs were connected with the popularization of reading the birth of a popular literature, the existence of a philosophy of liberty and enlightenment that was not yet incarnated into political institutions. Today, NGOS are connected with the birth of the fax, the e-mail, and the existence of human rights declarations, and embryonic institutions to protect them; thus, they can provide the material channel in which the human rights stream of consciousness will flow, from the grassroots struggles to the coming world political entity. We all know that a political entity must arise to respond to the global economic reality, one which win take us out of the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.

In the rich compost of grassroots struggles the political culture of human rights is born by way of the NGOS. They are the ones who can bring about a metamorphosis, so that democracy which has become a delivery system for the markets will again become a delivery system for human rights.

This can come true if a world movement for human rights education introduces the understanding of human rights into all sectors of society as a holistic, comprehensive way of life. Allow me to go back to the definitions from the Webster Dictionary cited above: a systematic body of concepts (human rights) about human life or culture; the integrated assertions (into people's lives), theories (international law) that constitute a sociopolitical programme (for a better world empowering the individual and the community to enforce human rights constraints throughout the social reality). Political education centered on human rights as its core concept, and the NGOs integrating this political/human rights education in their activities with their constituencies, can create the actual possibility of world citizenship which until now had been the role of visionaries whether prophets or harmless eccentrics.

The NGOs are literally everywhere, and it sometimes looks as if they lack a central focus or organization etc., possibly a political party of their own. I firmly believe that if they pursue the path of human rights, and integrate in their analysis the indivisibility, interdependence and interconnectedness of human rights, their work AM gain tremendous momentum and solidarity.

Indeed a political party may emerge to demand the enforcement of human rights as an imperative for the survival of the human race. The crucial factor is that the NGOs have chosen the international stage as their stage; crucial, because that is the level at which key decisions are being made now. The NGOs are indeed the seed of citizen-based world governance, which is the only basis upon which a true human rights culture can arise and thrive.

1 See the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
2 See the opening statement by Secretary-General Boutros-Ghaii in World Conference on Human Rights: The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, June 1993 (New York: United Nations, 1993), pp. 5-2 1.
3 U. Baxi, Inhuman Wrongs and Human Rights: Unconventional Essays (Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1994), p. vil
4op.cit.p. viii Baxi, supra, note 4, p.1.
6 U. Baxi Human Rights Education: The Promise of the Third Millenium 1996

For more information, please contact PDHRE:

The People's Movement for Human Rights Education (PDHRE) / NY Office
Shulamith Koenig / Executive Director
526 West 111th Street, New York, NY 10025, USA
tel: +1 212.749-3156; fax: +1 212.666-6325
e-mail: pdhre@igc.org