HUMAN RIGHTS HAVE WINGS: A Note for Teachers

by Richard Pierre Claude


Human rights have wings. They have found their way around the globe and should find a home in every household, village and city worldwide. Human rights, including the right to education and the right of the people to know their rights, are international expectations around the world, and now we are a part of that world community. Most countries have pledged to abide by these standards and in so doing, promise to protect and promote the rights of all citizens and inhabitants. Thus, everyone's right to education and the goal of education in furthering respect for all human rights -- these ideas are all found in our domestic laws as well as in the numerous international instruments the government has promised to honor. Once we recognize that all of us -- teachers, students and everyone else -- have human rights, and once we learn that the government has solemnly promised to respect them, then it should become clear, as too often it is not in newly emerging democracies, that the object of human rights education is not to sow the seeds of social unrest. Any such suggestion misunderstands human rights and democracy. Human rights education is strictly in accordance with the law and standards of good citizenship. In fact, it is our duty to educate people about their rights before the law so that they will be responsible citizens who will think for themselves, meeting their own needs through democratic means. When we act within the framework of political liberty and the rule of law, we rise above our problems by using our human rights wings.

Thinking about the Future.

Human rights education is a long-term strategy aimed at meeting our needs and those of coming generations. Such education for our future seldom draws support from those who are impatient and want to see immediate changes for the better, and thus it is not a strategy for the impatient, the short-winded, those who mistake the use of force for persuasion, and those unconcerned with justice in the modern world. Human rights education aims high because it seeks to construct innovative programs to advance human development, peace, democracy, and respect for the rule of law. To achieve these goals, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the UN Decade of Human Rights Education (1995-2005). In so doing, the international community resolved to build "a universal culture of human rights." Moreover, the UN emphasized that human rights education, by definition, should involve more than the provision of information but should rather constitute a comprehensive, life-long process by which people at all levels in development and in all strata of society learn respect for the dignity of others and the means and methods of ensuring that respect in all societies.

UN Members Have Duties.

Endorsements for human rights education have been proclaimed in various global and regional documents ever since 1945 when the Charter of the United Nations called for cooperation "in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." Thus, the Charter's references to "promoting and encouraging" create state responsibilities for educating and teaching human rights. Moreover, various international and regional organizations have strongly endorsed the goal. In emerging democracies such as Ethiopia and elsewhere around the world, school systems may be expected to increase their teaching of human rights and their civic educational work, viewed as strategies to foster good citizenship, to prevent human rights violations, and as techniques to empower people to meet their needs based upon their knowing and using their rights.

The United Nations Charter's references to the promotion and encouragement of human rights were clarified in 1948 when the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was proclaimed as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations," who were directed to "strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms...." Thus education is identified as a key means to the Charter task of promoting human rights. Additionally, the opening language of the Declaration announces that "teaching and education" are not simply new post-World War II state functions -- among the governmental duties attending membership in the U.N. Rather, as if to acknowledge popular action at the grass-roots level and the work of non-governmental groups, "teaching and education" for human rights are announced as the obligation of "every individual and every organ of society...."

The Right to Education.

Education is not only a means to promote human rights. It is an end in itself. In positing a human right to education, the framers of the Universal Declaration relied on the notion that education is not value-neutral. Education always relates to and supports values. But we must be aware of what values we are promoting through education. In this spirit, Article 30 states that one of the goals of education should be "the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms..." (Section 2). The human rights covenants (later developed by the U.N. and coming into effect in 1976 to formalize the basis in international law of the rights declared in 1948) also elaborated on the right to education and the values such education should promote. Thus, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights placed the educational objective of strengthening respect for human rights in a cluster of related learning objectives. For example, Article 13 of the Covenant says that education shall be directed to the "full development of the human personality" and to the person's own "sense of dignity..." (Section 1). The Covenant also says that member states of the UN should "agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace" (Article 13, Section 1).

Complementing these positive formulations of the objectives of education are the negative rules of the Civil and Political Rights Covenant. It tells us that once a state adopts the system of international human rights, it may not stand in the way of people learning about them. Everyone has "the right to hold opinions without interference," the Covenant says in Article 19, Section 1. Insomuch as education is a process involving the sharing and dissemination of ideas, the enterprise is bolstered by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which sets forth the proposition that: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his (or her) choice" (Article 19, Section 2).

The Right to Know Our Rights.

The International Bill of Rights, consisting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two Covenants, gave prominence to the importance of education in today's world. Because international treaties tend to use repetitious language and to repeat cardinal principles, it is not surprising to find echoes elsewhere of the standards noted above, for example in The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. The cumulative effect of these repeated expressions helps to underline the importance of human rights but also an important closely related idea. That is the conviction that we all have a right to know our rights. That makes human rights education everyone's duty.

Knowing our human rights is essential in today's world. The reason is stated in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: to achieve "a world in which human beings enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want" people must come to "a common understanding of these rights and freedoms." The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights also makes this point clearly by saying that governments' educational programs must ensure that people understand their rights. Article 25 says states must "promote and ensure through teaching, education and publication, respect for the rights and freedoms contained in the Charter and to see to it that these freedoms and rights as well as corresponding obligations and duties are understood."

Taking these ideas seriously helps us understand the importance of teachers. If respect for human rights is the means of achieving peace, then teachers are peacemakers. If teaching human rights furthers democracy and development, then teachers are architects of democratic development and of the world of tomorrow. They must teach students not only to read and write but to be human and to respect the human dignity of others as well. They must teach their students to spread their wings.


Richard Pierre Claude is Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA, and the editor of Human Rights Education for the 21st Century (London and Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997). Address comments to: Professor Richard Pierre Claude, 3225 Grace Street NW, Canal House 223, Washington, DC 20007, USA. fax: 202 / 625 1043 | e-mail: profclaude@aol.com.

This essay was specially prepared for The People's Decade of Human Rights Education, 526 West 111th Street, New York, NY 10025. tel: 212 / 749-3156 | fax: 212 / 666-6325 | e-mail: pdhre@igc.org