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date: 22 April 2018

Human Rights Education

Summary and Keywords

Human rights education (HRE) is a set of educational and pedagogical learning methods aimed at informing people and training them in their human rights. The earliest foundation of HRE is found under Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which guarantees the right to education. HRE became a widespread concept in the 1990s with the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly in 1994 on the UN Decade for Human Rights Education from 1995 to 2004. With this decade, all UN member states agreed to undertake measures to promote and incorporate HRE in the formal and non-formal education sectors. However, toward the end of the UN Decade it was clear that only a few governments had complied with these requests. Instead, most of the promotional work for HRE was done by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs, foundations, academic institutions, and international organizations have edited and published most of the literature in the field of HRE over the past four decades. Publication figures estimate over 2000 publications since 1965, and the number is growing, particularly in the non-English speaking world. Most materials focus on a particular human rights issue such as gender, children, torture, or freedom rights. In the future, HRE is expected to be more local and community based as well as more target group–orientated.

Keywords: human rights education, right to education, Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Human Rights Education (HRE) is a set of educational and pedagogical learning methods to inform people of, and train them in, their human rights. It provides information about the international or regional human rights norms, standards, and systems and enhances people’s skills and attitudes that lead to the protection and support of human rights. Educating people in their human rights should empower them to know and use them to protect themselves and others from their violation. It leads to mutual understanding and respect for human rights and thus HRE contributes to and protects people’s dignity.

Even though it had its origins decades ago, HRE became a widespread concept in the 1990s with the resolution of the United Nations Organizations (UNO/UN) General Assembly in 1994 on the UN Decade for Human Rights Education from 1995 to 2004. With this decade, all UN member states agreed to undertake measures and activities to promote and incorporate HRE in the formal and non-formal education sectors. Together with dozens of international and hundreds of national non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva and UNESCO helped to organize and coordinate the decade. Toward the end of the UN Decade it was clear that only a few governments had complied with these requests. Instead, most of the promotional work for HRE was done by NGOs and not states.

HRE is sometimes used parallel to, or synonymously with, terms like Human Rights Education and Learning (HREL) or Education for Democratic Citizenship (EDC). EDC is actually a separate educational concept. It refers primarily to citizenship education or democratic and constitutional education and is mostly used in transition societies that have recently made a commitment to democracy (Council of Europe 2004). HRE is broader and more commonly used by international organizations, NGOs, and academia without reference to any particular political system or structure. In fact, HRE is an educational concept that is independent from any traditional religious, political, or ideological educational concepts. It aims at empowering individuals regardless of their religious, political, or ethical background and thus it is an education concept that is transnational. However, the way it is carried out in programs, projects, and curricula may differ depending upon cultural, political, or social contexts, or even age and gender. After agreeing on the general and holistic content of HRE programs or curricula, an adaptation of educational methods and techniques has to follow. This is essential to reach out to different target groups and individuals depending on their age, educational, and professional background and different living environments.

NGOs, foundations, academic institutions, and international organizations such as UNESCO or the Council of Europe have edited and published most of the literature in the field of HRE over the past four decades. Publication figures estimate over 2000 publications since 1965 (Elbers 2009). The number is growing, in particular in the non-English speaking world. Only a selection of these publications will be mentioned in this essay. Several hundred books and other materials are on the market, more than 80 percent of which are training materials or guidelines for teachers and are thus “gray literature” edited and published by NGOs or international organizations but classified as non-academic. These publications are categorized by target groups, topics, or keywords and by the type of publication. Most materials focus on a particular human rights issue such as gender, children, torture, or freedom rights. A much smaller number are of an academic nature and can be classified as studies or survey and release evaluations, assessments or impact studies of HRE on societal behavior and changes. The HRE publication market is growing. With the end of the UN Decade in 2004 and the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2008, dozens of English HRE publications and more articles and online sources have entered the market each year.

The Foundation of Human Rights Education

The earliest foundation of HRE is found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 (United Nations 1948). Article 26 of the UDHR guarantees the right to education and states: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.” Even though this Article refers primarily to basic education for all, it also indicates that people should be educated to know their human rights and how to apply them (Claude 2005).

The Article was long neglected by member states of the UN and its agencies. Only UNESCO, carrying “education” in its title, has been a consistent actor in promoting the idea of education for all. In the past it sometimes used the term “value education” instead of HRE, because during the period of the Cold War, education in human rights was often understood or transmitted into political or civic education with strong ideological intentions. Western concepts of individual freedom rights versus group and societal responsibilities dominated the discourse in the field. During this time, HRE was trapped between the different educational priorities of socialist regimes of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, capitalist and democratic regimes of the West, as well as religious and nationalistic driven education in many traditional, authoritarian, and dictatorial regimes in Asia or Africa.

HRE was slowly introduced in the 1950s and 1960s when the anti-nuclear peace movement called for a change of educational concepts in state curricula. It was later called peace education with a focus on disarmament. Evaluations and analysis of that time point out that HRE was about political attitudes, civic behavior, and disarmament (Torney and Gambrell 1980). T. Buergenthal and J. Torney (1976) later added the term “international education” to describe education in human rights and international mechanisms of the UN or the Council of Europe that promote and protect human rights. After some time the different notions and concepts merged. In the 1970s, Amnesty International and other organizations started to work in HRE along with activists who had experience in peace education. With professors, experts, and teachers, they developed the first HRE curricula, e.g., in New Zealand, the USA, and Australia (Amnesty International 1990; Tibbitts 2008). With the constant rise of human rights campaigns in the 1980s by NGOs like Amnesty International, the Helsinki Committee, or Human Rights Watch, people became more aware of human rights and their abuses. The growing human rights awareness triggered through peace education and human rights campaigns evolved into HRE, which became an educational concept in its own right. Along with this, NGOs became indispensable actors in the international human rights arena and they brought HRE with them. The still mostly unknown concept of HRE became more widely discussed at international forums. It gained more legitimacy after NGOs and UNESCO worked jointly to promote human rights on the one side and education on the other. Both UNESCO and NGOs have since benefited from these joint efforts. As a result, NGOs could connect their primary aims to combat human rights abuses, hold governments responsible for protecting and promoting human rights by making abuses transparent, raise awareness, and mobilize people to support their inquiries.

HRE aims to empower people by shaping analytical thinking and awareness when and where human rights abuses occur. Thus, HRE has often been seen as a tool by civil society, human rights activists, and NGOs to educate and empower people so they can “watch government actions,” speak up against injustice, demand fair trials and more transparency, and make human rights violations public (Amnesty International 2001). Training materials were designed and published by NGOs and teachers in the 1980s, e.g., in Great Britain, Germany, and the USA (HREA Database and University of Minnesota Human Rights Library). In the beginning, HRE could only enter the classroom if there were teachers and human rights activists who included it in their teaching and training because state agencies, ministries of education, schools, and governments did not enforce it. State bureaucrats usually did not connect the idea of human rights protection with the right to education and Article 26 of the UDHR. Neither did they incorporate HRE into the state and formal education curricula. The political will and need was not there to change state school curricula. It took another decade before NGOs like Amnesty International, the People’s Decade for Human Rights Education (PDHRE), and many other private initiatives of teachers and higher education professionals lobbied and intervened at national and international levels so that HRE would become part of the formal education system (Reardon 1995; Andreopoulos and Claude 1997; Flowers 2004). State authorities often neglected the demand to adapt HRE because political, citizenship, and ideological education was more common and seen as a more useful educational concept. An independent, holistic, and “all inclusive” HRE program in which, for example, the human rights to work, adequate housing, or social security were equally as important as the human rights to free speech, opinion, and assembly was technically difficult to compose or politically unpopular. Representatives of the formal education system, such as schoolteachers, ministries, or textbook publishers understood that educating people with a concept of human rights is difficult to implement. It meant that if HRE were to claim that all human rights are equally important, then many educational policies could be seriously challenged.

For decades UNESCO organized expert meetings based on Article 26 of the UDHR and called upon governments to introduce HRE without much success. At the time of the Cold War it seemed unrealistic that any UN member state would take the initiative to ask for the promotion of the full spectrum of human rights through standardized and internationally developed HRE curricula. Many of the state human rights records indicated – and still do – serious gaps in the fulfillment and implementation of (all) human rights standards on a day-to-day basis. Including such an approach in the school curricula would have meant that these states would put themselves under more scrutiny than they already were by allowing NGOs and international observers into their countries. This is still an issue for states today.

Only after the end of the Cold War and during a wave of democratic transitions in the Global South and Eastern Europe did HRE slowly become part of the international human rights agenda. Thus, when in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, HRE achieved an unexpected promotion. Former ideological borders of the Cold War no longer blocked the dissemination of human rights and many newborn states wanted to become members of the UN or the Council of Europe, requiring them to make political and constitutional concessions that often included the promotion of human rights through HRE programs. Political changes and democratic transition were one reason for the spread of HRE. The other two reasons were: first, that the NGO community continually developed its capacities, and with the support of donors and sponsors started to translate basic human rights and educational materials into national and local languages; and, second, the World Wide Web unexpectedly became a tool to disseminate the idea of human rights, even across borders in ways nobody had expected a few years earlier. Rapid and unlimited access to information via the Internet was just a matter of time. Along with that development, HRE online courses became available and offered new opportunities to learn about human rights.

The UNO, the Council of Europe, and the Organization of American States (OAS) were among the first international organizations to follow this trend. The early 1990s were thus a window of opportunity for international organizations, NGOs, and progressive states, alike, to foster HRE and promote full spectrum human rights education programming (Andreopoulos and Claude 1997; Evans et al. 1997). Consequently, NGO initiatives from Australia, the USA, and Europe were among the main drivers to lobby UNESCO and the UNO to take up the idea for a UN Decade for Human Rights Education. It was at the UN World Conference for Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and through the Program of Action that HRE became a major part of the agenda (Mihr and Schmitz 2007). In the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action in June 1993 the UN member states stated that HRE, training, and public information were essential for the promotion and achievement of stable and harmonious relations among communities, as well as for the fostering of mutual understanding, tolerance and peace (UN Doc. 1996). The Vienna Program of Action displayed HRE as a political tool and mechanism to maintain stable societies and peace. In light of the Cold War’s end and under the impression that the 1990s would be the decade for peace and democracy, it was easier for governments to support HRE. A year later, in December 1994, the UN General Assembly declared the UN Decade for Human Rights Education 1995–2004.

The Decade had ambitious goals which it could hardly fulfill during the time given. Nevertheless, it came at an appropriate time to take advantage of the political climate of the early 1990s and to move HRE from the periphery to the center of NGO activism and state policies. By 2004, toward the end of the Decade, it was evident that NGOs and private initiatives, not the governments, had done most of the work of the Decade. Their increasing engagement and growth during that period are some of the reasons why today significant quantities of human rights publications are in the form of training materials composed and written for and by the non-formal education sector. In fact, according to the Minnesota Human Rights Library and the collection by HREA (Elbers 2009), approximately 80 percent of all HRE publications are manuals, guidebooks, and training materials. They are composed by and for teachers, mediators, and trainers. To a much lesser extent these publications contain political strategies on how to act, to promote, or to lobby for human rights on a political level for inclusion in the formal and non-formal education sectors. Even fewer publications include evaluations of the impact of HRE (Claude 2001; Mihr 2004).

On the inter-governmental level, the UN Decade was closely followed up by agencies and special organizations such as the OHCHR and UNESCO. They managed and promoted the Decade on behalf of the UNO with a minimum of resources. The government reports to the OHCHR at the end of the Decade were rather few but clear (UN Doc. 2004). In these reports it was stated that the UN Decade was seen by governments as a “catalyst” to foster the idea of HRE to become an integral part of national educational action plans. The activities during the Decade were seen to have paved the way for follow-up and to have led to the UN World Program for Human Rights Education in its different phases since 2005 (UNESCO 2006; UN Doc. 2005a; 2005b). Together with the Program for HRE, the UN General Assembly introduced the first Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee for HRE in 2006, including representatives of UN member states who strongly committed themselves to support the World Program. Then on December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the UDHR, the UN General Assembly called for the International Year of Human Rights Learning (UN Doc. 2008). But to materialize the ambitious objectives of the UN and NGO community, the realization would need closer cooperation between state and UN agencies such as national human rights institutes, human rights commissions, ombudsmen, human rights training centers, higher education institutions, teachers, trainers, and UN agencies alike, such as the OHCHR, UNESCO, WHO, UNDP, UNICEF, UNU, and many others (United Nations 1999a).

The reactions to the UN Decade and the World Program for HRE largely reflect to what extent HRE has been left in the hands of NGOs and private actors too (Robinson 1998). They have filled the gap, published materials, translated human rights documents into many languages, promoted the UDHR, and thus satisfied the needs of many educators and trainers who did not know how to teach or train in human rights. But this private engagement and rapid growth of NGOs also carries the risk that HRE primarily reflects specific or donor interests only. There is still no coherence in its definitions, methods, or content of what and how to teach or to learn. Consequently, the many materials that exist are designed based on the experience or best practices of a few teachers or activists and are published with the support of private donors or international organizations (United Nations 2004).

This has also has led to the practice of outsourcing governmental obligations to NGOs or private foundations. For many NGOs, in return, this is a way for self-financing. They consider HRE as a growing “job market,” in which they compete for tenures offered by government, private donors, and foundations, the UN, or the Council of Europe, and in which they receive sums of money to organize and manage HRE courses. One of the disadvantages of this competitive market for NGOs is that it carries the risk that as long as governments are not taking full ownership – as they agreed to do in 1993 and in 1994 – HRE will not be fully incorporated in the national education system. For different reasons, governments and national authorities have only slowly taken ownership of HRE and to a far lesser extent than they earlier promised.

Transforming societies and changing human behavior are only two of the major goals that programs, materials, and guidelines have in common. A scholar who learns about human rights, its legal frameworks, universal standards and norms is shaping her/his analytical and critical thinking about the different aspects of human rights, for example how civil rights are interlinked with social and economic rights (Martin 1996). It is assumed that someone who has learned about human rights can more easily detect when human rights are abused or standards are not fulfilled than someone who does not know about her/his rights.

Success in HRE has been linked, for example, to the fact that today more people in the world are able to claim to be a victim of human rights violations. This is not because there is more abuse, but because more people are able to detect when human rights are violated and then protest. They know that it is a violation of their human rights, for example, when their homes get bulldozed for economic benefit without any warning or adequate compensation. People claim basic medical care and access to education as human rights. Most of these human rights have long been neglected or not named as such. Their fulfillment is today considered crucial in order to establish and to maintain peaceful societies – again, often referring to Article 26 of the UDHR. Through HRE campaigns and training conducted by NGOs such as Amnesty International, the People’s Decade for Human Rights Education (PDHRE) or Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) in the 1990s, human rights were meant to be put “in the hands of ordinary” people. It was anticipated that human rights would move from the expert community and law faculties into everybody’s life.

Summarized, it means that still large parts of HRE programs and initiatives remain in the hands of NGOs. Due to limited resources, these short-term projects often depend on external donors or goodwill cooperation with international organizations or governmental agencies. With that in mind, education and training in and for human rights reaches rather small or self-selected target groups. Human rights awareness has increased due to the initiatives of NGOs, but far less effectively than would have been the case if governments had shown greater involvement in setting up nationwide HRE programs for the formal education sector, consequently reaching all people regardless of their social, professional, or economic background.

Review of Literature 1948–1990

HRE literature and publications can be divided into two major phases. The first begins in 1948 and continues through the Cold War period till 1990. The second phase starts in the 1990s and is ongoing. During the first phase few articles or books were published. They are mainly written in English, are teacher-orientated and reflect the Cold War ideological setup. Content-wise, they concentrate on issues of peace and disarmament (Buergenthal and Torney 1976). Most of the literature is published in the United States and Great Britain and focuses on civil and political rights. Books of that time give guidance for teachers on how to behave in the classroom (WCCES 1994). Translations into major languages, other than English, have not taken place. Thus, in the early years of HRE each language group often had to “re-invent” its own publication.

One of the earlier academic reflections on HRE is the article by E. Dretz, a US professor for higher education, in 1958. She argues that human rights are primarily democratic values determined by teachers on a knowledge based approach. Knowledge of rights, and the “observance of the rights of all humans are the weapons that all educators must use and encourage their students to advocate.” Mutual tolerance should be learned by interpersonal and intercultural exchange of students, and students should learn to respect other cultures through travel and international study exchange. But Dretz also points out that “rights must first be recognized and then be translated into such terms as behaviour, view points, attitudes, and appreciations” (1958:13–15). Only in the late 1970s and the following years did educational programs slowly change perspective from knowledge to an interest based approach. Issues such as peace, disarmament, or international education switch to those such as democracy, tolerance, the Holocaust, genocide, or intercultural education (Reardon 1988). Most of these programs promote a single human rights topic, for example, training materials that focus exclusively on women’s rights, children’s rights, the death penalty, or freedom rights. Other programs simply repeat the main UN treaties, pacts, and conventions without much guidance on how to use them in daily life (OHCHR 2006).

One of the earlier books for practitioners and teachers that goes beyond the traditional peace and inter-cultural training concept is the 1981 Levin guidebook Questions and Answers on human rights and the human rights protection system. It was one of the first published with the support of UNESCO and has been translated into more than 30 languages worldwide (Levin 2004). Soon afterwards, the Canadian based Human Rights Research and Education Centre published a bibliography on HRE in 1985 (Human Rights Research and Education Centre 1985). Hence, in the 1980s HRE slowly evolves into a broader holistic concept, though the focus on individual and freedom rights remains.

In the Western world, where most of HRE projects haven taken off, democratic principles such as free elections, free press, or freedom of opinion were seen in the past as the main pillars of any educational program and sometimes as the only realistic and enforceable human rights (Graves 1991; United Nations 1987). Social, economic, or cultural rights, the right to choose one’s profession, or the right to social security, were not seen as equally valid or as easily implemented into teaching programs. Social rights, in particular, were seen as non-enforceable. During the Cold War they were mainly promoted by socialist countries of the Eastern communist regimes to distinguish themselves from the Western capitalistic system. Consequently, at that time, Western NGOs that tried to bridge this gap were trapped in the Cold War battles and did not permit themselves to put social and economic rights on the same level as personal freedom rights. Therefore, HRE programs tended to be individual rights-orientated.

UNESCO has always been one of the main international actors in the field. Already in 1974 it was holding an international expert meeting in Paris and it published the “UNESCO Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” which reflect very much the ideological and political reality of that time (UNESCO 1974). Others followed in 1976 in Nairobi, Kenya, and in 1978 in Vienna, Austria, focusing on the development of adult education. During that same period, in 1979, UNESCO launched the first biannual bulletin on Human Rights Teaching (UNESCO 1979). It is teacher–student orientated and uses the common top–down approach to teach norms and values. In 1982 the organization set up a meeting on human rights education in Strasbourg, France, highlighting the importance of teaching international human rights norms and that teachers should be good examples for students and learners of human rights in schools (UNESCO 1976; 1987). These publications stress the importance of learning about human rights norms and standards, focusing on UN treaties and the necessity to reach more awareness about them through what they called HRE (Eide 1983; Bernstein Tarrow 1987).

After 1990 the ideas of HRE were meant to expand and its teaching and learning methods changed. Until then, human rights teaching and education had predominantly been practiced at law faculties or private seminars of NGOs, and their teaching methods were based on normative concepts and international human rights documents (Eide and Thee 1983). This shift was linked to: first, the end of the Cold War and with it the end of two opposing political ideologies; second, the fact that UNESCO and NGOs entered jointly into the field of HRE; and, third, the emergence of IT and the Internet. In the following years UNESCO and the NGOs compiled a number of resource books and translated basic human rights documents (HREA 2001; Human Security Network 2003). First assessments and evaluations reports of HRE programs appear in the academic sector about the same time. The development and the incorporation of HRE into the formal education sector and the development of training materials for non-formal education slowly increase (PDHRE 2001). Parallel to these developments, more publications and training, as well as online access, have triggered more initiatives and this again has led to the creation of more NGOs that today primarily work on HRE.

An international expert meeting prior to the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna was the UNESCO conference in Montreal, Canada, in 1993. It was here that NGOs and UNESCO opted jointly for a UN Decade for HRE (UNESCO 1994). The Vienna conference and the beginning of the UN Decade were major steps for HRE to follow. Here they asked for HRE to be included also in professional education in public service sectors such as medical, military, or police education. This also has triggered more academic publications, surveys, and evaluations from a mix of authors with different discipline backgrounds: pedagogy, social sciences, or anthropology. Nevertheless, NGOs remain so far the major publisher in this field (Clark 1991). Active ones include the web-based HREA in Boston, with more than 3000 users; EQUITAS in Montreal, the PDHRE in New York, Amnesty International in over 70 countries, and many others.

Changes Over Time and Current Treatment

Whereas earlier publications stated that knowledge about human rights is important in order to detect and decide what human rights violations are, later publications have focused more on empowering individuals. Publications on HRE have tripled over the past decade, and through the Internet, online learning, and other media tools, human rights have spread faster then ever before (Suarez and Ramirez 2004:34–7). Today, articles in scientific journals and compilations, although descriptive and normative by their nature, have become almost incalculable (Elbers 2000). Most of the academic publications are compilations with a mix of articles and contributions targeting either specific topics or a selection of human rights or teaching methods (Cole 2000; Gerber 2008; Audi and Schultz 2008; Endicott et al. 2009).

Most of these compilations of articles do not have a coherent definition of HRE. They describe the objectives and aims of education and training projects and outline cases of good practice (Reardon 1995; Andreopoulos and Claude 1997; Åkermark 1998; UNESCO 1998; George 1999; Benedek 2006). Some authors took first steps in assessing what HRE means for higher education institutions. As a result P. Gerber, R. Mara, and F. Tibbitts concluded that HRE has not yet succeeded in becoming a crosscutting issue in the formal education sector, including university or college classrooms (Mara 1997; Tibbitts 1997a; Gerber 2008). Consequently, academic publications from different perspectives on HRE slowly developed during the 1990s (Osler and Starkey 1996a; 1996b; Åkermark 1998). But still today, higher education institutions or vocational training centers have no coherent materials that help, for example, to design syllabi for academic disciplines such as technical education, biology, or mathematics. Some initiatives like the web-based resource portal for Human Rights Syllabi for the College Classroom by Berkeley University or HRE in technical vocational training (Spoettl 2004) are the exception, not the norm.

International Organizations such as UNO, the Council of Europe, and the European Union have also increased the visibility of HRE through publications. The Council of Europe and the European Union financially support programs and materials on HRE or EDC. The latter has often been criticized as “exclusive education” meant to exclude vulnerable groups and foreigners such as asylum seekers, refugees, or the millions of working migrants. The former UN Special Rapporteur on Education (1998–2004) Katarina Tomasevski called EDC an “exclusive HRE” approach as opposed to an “inclusive approach” in which all human rights for all people living in a given society are mentioned and taught regardless of their citizenship or other status (Tomasevski 2001; 2003). Any “exclusive approach” would give governments too much room to select certain human rights and leave out others (Huber and Harkavy 2008).

One of the most widespread educational manuals is the Human Rights Compass for young people supported and first published in 2002 by the Council of Europe (Council of Europe 2002). The manual is a direct result of the UN Decade and the joint efforts of NGOs and the Youth Center of the Council of Europe. No other human rights training material has been translated into so many languages. Although the manual focuses on global citizenship education, it targets all relevant groups in a given society and combines background knowledge on human rights and practical guidance for educators (Audi and Schultz 2008; Osler and Starkey 2008).

International organizations have been important entrepreneurs in operationalizing the aims of the UN Decade or the World Program. The HRE database of the UN-OHCHR is one example. Together with other UN sub-organizations such as the UNDP or UNICEF, they have financed human rights projects (United Nations 1999b). The Council of Europe could make a big difference as a means to support HRE when it acts as a donor and financial supporter of projects and programs (Council of Europe 2008). The same applies to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Both supported the Decade when calling on their member states to foster democratization through HRE (OSCE 2004). The Organization of American States (OAS) and the African Union (AU) could make less significant efforts to promote the UN Decade. Again due to a lack of resources or political will, in the Americas and in Africa, many initiatives were taken up by UN agencies and NGOs. Consequently, in Latin America and in Africa most materials have been published by NGOs or private sponsors.

Earlier attempts by academics and NGOs to introduce HRE in state-wide curricula were made in Latin America during the period of democratic reforms in the 1980s, which also led to modest educational reforms prior to the UN Decade (Magendzo 1989). Towards the end of the Decade the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in Costa Rica conducted a survey among its member states (Inter-American Institute of Human Rights 2007). Its primary task was to list to what extent Article 26 of the UDHR and the right to education had been implemented among its member states. The study argues that Article 26 is a prerequisite for HRE to be implemented. Therefore, the more the right to education is guaranteed, the better the chances are that human rights values are transmitted through education (Spring 2000).

The first HRE conference during the UN Decade took place in Turku, Finland, in 1997. For the African continent, UNESCO organized the conference in Dakar, Senegal, in 1998 and for the Asia-Pacific region in 1999 in Pune, India. The latter one was made possible with the help of the NGO community and private activists in the Asia-Pacific (Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center 2005). The last regional conference during the UN Decade was arranged in 2001 in Mexico, for the Americas. In the follow-up, the Mexican government launched a “National Program to Promote and Strengthen Human Rights,” including HRE programs for schools and the non-formal education sector (OHCHR 2004).

In regions with a younger human rights movement, HRE came at a slower pace. In 1994 the Arab League, in the aftermath of the Vienna Conference, declared its own Charter on Human Rights. UNESCO set up a conference for the Arab Region in 1999 in Rabat, Morocco, alongside the first International Conference of the Arab Human Rights Movement in Casablanca. After that meeting the Cairo Declaration on HRE and Dissemination was an initiative taken by UNESCO and NGOs from that region also to promote HRE. It was seen as a project with good intentions but no support by the Arab governments (Cairo Declaration on Human Rights Education and Dissemination 2001). In Asia and the Arab World, HRE campaigns have nevertheless been somehow successful as long as they were single issue related, for example, on the issue of domestic violence, fighting poverty, or promoting Article 26 on the right to education. The campaigns are seen as “door openers” for HRE toward governments which generally deny human rights, and imprison or persecute opposition.

Till the end of the UN Decade, few countries turned out to be more active than others. This was largely due to the pressure they received from NGOs. Australia, for example, launched its National Action Plan on Australia’s National Framework for Human Rights in 2005. The Philippines had already been developing their Plan of Action since 1997 and declared 1998–2007 its national Decade for HRE (OHCHR 2004). In Europe, Sweden passed its National Action Plan in 2001/2 to include human rights as a crosscutting issue in all educational sectors of the country (Swedish government written communication 2001/2002:83). But until today, countries that have a Plan of Action for HRE are the minority. This is not due to a lack of resources or political will alone, but also because many state authorities and ministries do not see the urgency in changing the national curriculum to include aspects of human rights. They argue that citizen rights, based on human rights, are sufficiently included or guaranteed by national legislation and in common educational curricula – in particular in Europe. The problem with this is that even though people learn about their citizen rights, they often do not know that these are human rights and thus valid globally for all. They do not learn that these rights ought to lead to mutual respect across borders. Instead, they often feel “privileged” to have rights whereas others do not have them (Mahler et al. 2009).

These developments have left some marks. A shift occurred from knowledge based education materials, used till the 1980s, to materials with a target group-orientated focus developed in the 1990s. Today, the different needs and demands of target groups and their human rights are taken more seriously into consideration (UNESCO 2000). The focus on knowledge based education has given way to a bottom–up approach. Individual and target group-oriented programs on local levels became more frequent (Belisle and Sullivan 2007). The added value is that each group gets what is of most interest to them: children’s needs differ from those of police officers or women. People deprived of their homes and property, minorities, migrants, or people with disabilities find certain human rights more helpful than others (Cole 2000). Within 20 years, from Eide’s article in 1983 to the end of the UN Decade in 2004, this shift took place from a teacher–learner to a learner–teacher perspective.

Future Directions

HRE is developing at a fast pace. In 2009 a draft UN Declaration on Human Rights Education has been discussed at the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council. The idea of a Declaration has for many years been discussed at the UN level; and it has finally been submitted by a network of NGOs that is supported by some state representatives. The draft Declaration proposes a clear and common definition and concept of HRE and requires more accountability and responsibilities by governments and UN member states to implement and promote HRE. If only parts of it successfully pass through the UN General Assembly, the future of HRE programs and curricula could be more coherent and receive international support.

Following the recent trends, HRE will likely be more local and community based. At the same time it will be more target group–orientated. Eventually, HRE could become an integral part of all educational sectors and adult training, triggered by the worldwide engagement of NGOs, the OHCHR, UNESCO, and regional intergovernmental organizations or networks. Academic assessments, research, university faculties, and Human Rights Centers will make records of these changes and be part of the educational processes. Today, more and more state governments commit themselves to HRE, most of them geographically in Europe and Africa. To a lesser extent, these voices are heard in Asia and the Arab world (Suarez and Ramirez 2004:33). Bearing in mind that two-thirds of the world’s growing population lives in Asia and the Arab world, HRE has, despite its popularity, not reached the global level that the UN and the OHCHR had anticipated in 1994. The widespread reluctance to add HRE to the political agenda reflects the political culture of a region that is largely authoritarian and considers human rights to be a Western idea that presumably counteracts “Asian” or “oriental values.” At the same time, due to faster and better IT communication, there is a growing demand by people in the Arab World and Asia towards Asian and Arab NGOs offering HRE programs either online or on the local level.

More human rights challenges are triggered, for example, by climate change, urbanization, and migration. In the near future, people will need to solve problems in different ways at the local and community levels and they will us human rights as one of their means to do so (Mertus and Flowers 2008). The worldwide massive migration waves, caused by conflicts, climate change, and access to resources, will have implications for the education sector too. By 2030, two-thirds of the world population will live in urban areas and half of them will be under the age of 25. This will have an impact on every school curriculum and HRE program to be designed in the future. Migration and urbanization will lead to more racism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia worldwide; the cleavages among poor and rich, minorities and majorities will become widespread. Property rights, access to education, adequate working and living conditions, health and security issues, and, consequently, all major human rights treaties and declarations since 1948 will be under scrutiny.

Under these circumstances, “traditional” HRE programs that concentrate on single issues such as the death penalty, women’s rights, or torture, will most likely not fulfill the societal demands of people who want to understand and solve problems with their living environment.

At the same time, people know more about human rights than ever before. Human rights have entered the political sphere as criteria to assess and evaluate internal and external policies in democracies and dictatorships alike. Therefore, more comprehensive analytical and practical skills will be needed to understand the complex interlinkage between social, economic, and freedom rights in order to detect when human rights are abused in one’s environment or neighborhood. HRE in the future needs to be community based and will need the local engagement of municipal and community leaders. Teachers and educators will, thus, need to use different tools and methods to reach out to the people who need, and want, to know about their human rights.

And with a growing demand for experts that know how to apply and maneuver human rights as a peaceful means to solve conflicts and problems, HRE becomes a professional field for academics, too. Over the past decade, hundreds of master’s degrees (MA and LLM) have blossomed throughout academic institutions and universities all over the world. From a UN and UNESCO perspective they are considered part of the HRE programs, the Decade, and the World Program in which all higher education faculties should offer courses and degrees in human rights, too. The growing number of UNESCO Chairs in human rights is another development that continues. Through postgraduate programs young people get specific training to use human rights as a tool in their professional and daily lives. As a consequence, the professional title of a human rights officer becomes common, in particular within international organizations. In Europe alone more than a hundred one- to two-year postgraduate programs have been established (Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network 2008). The number in North America and Latin America is growing equally. As part of its contribution to the UN Decade, the European Union in 1996 established the first regional multidisciplinary master’s program for Human Rights and Democratization located in Venice, Italy. Other regional master’s programs, financially supported by the European Union, have been founded over the past decade in the Balkans (Sarajevo), for the Mediterranean Region (Malta), for Africa (Pretoria), for Asia-Pacific (Hong Kong), and for Latin America (Costa Rica). And in 2008 the European Union launched another call for more regional human rights master’s programs which will lead to further establishments in Russia, Latin America, Central Asia, and the Asia-Pacific region. These master’s are multidisciplinary, and academics and practitioners teach a wide spectrum of human rights to postgraduates from all academic backgrounds. Graduates work in international organizations, development agencies, humanitarian NGOs, or for governments.

Human Rights Education Research

Research in the area of HRE needs impact assessment in order to know whether it is in the people’s interest and whether or not it leads to any societal changes and transformation (Mihr 2004). Recent publications show that there ought to be a stronger review of the methods used for the assessment, for example, for people with disabilities, vulnerable and marginalized groups, prisoners, homosexuals, or minorities (Cole 2000; Endicott et al. 2009). Knowing the needs of specific groups will help to develop adequate methods and techniques (Green 1994; Teleki 2007; Osler and Starkey 2008; Mahler et al. 2009).

The main challenge in doing research in this field is how to evaluate and assess the countless data, statistics, articles, training materials, online courses, and publications offered by NGOs and international organizations. They all claim to have made contributions to realize the aims and objectives of the UN Decade. First attempts have been conducted in the case of India, which led to practical advice on how to compose HRE programs for the subcontinent (Naseema 2008).

This aside, what is still not conducted on a larger scale is a long-term comparative study on HRE programs among regions, countries, or target groups. What needs to be assessed is the fact that HRE has been taken up largely by private donors, NGOs, and international organizations without any coherence in materials, methods, or strategies. Keeping in mind that there is not a sole actor in this field and neither is there a coherent methodological approach to teach and learn human rights, a clear picture of what has been, can, and ought to be done in order to have a long-term impact is needed. Furthermore, a common understanding is based on the fact that social, economic, and cultural, as well as political and civil human rights are one educational set and not two. It ought to apply for any target or interest group that it might consider and it would change many present HRE programs. Teaching methods have to be adaptable regarding age, social, professional, or educational background of the people, but its content needs to be coherent and refer to all human rights alike – without any exclusion, political, ideological, or religious excuse.

Understandably, to assess the literature or the impact of HRE, a researcher needs to deal with a multitude of “gray literature” of manuals, guidebooks, schoolbooks, and training materials that somehow carry the title of HRE on it (Suarez 2007). To select those that are eligible for a profound assessment is the first step a researcher has to undertake. Also, different topics haven been taught through different methods and thus would need different techniques to assess and evaluate (Alston 1992; Nowak 1999). The bottom–up approach and the needs assessments came much later into the HRE curricula via teachers, psychologists, or anthropologists (Center for Human Rights 1992; Hannibal 1992; Tibbitts 1997b; Torney-Purta 1987). Sociologists and political scientists have dealt with the societal impact of HRE as a “soft” tool to promote human rights (Jabine and Claude 1992; Spirer and Spirer 1987). An effort could be made to match these aspects and disciplines, and the different quality of literature to get a comprehensive picture of HRE reality.

Consequently, there is a growing demand to do international surveys on the long-term impact of HRE. Survey questions might ask whether HRE programs have led to short- or long-term changes in attitudes and behavior (Amnesty International 1999; Martin 2000; Equitas 2008). So far, most experts, researchers, and academics assume that HRE will lead to behavioral changes, but systematic investigations have not yet been published. It is difficult to assess because this kind of research ought to be interdisciplinary and has to take into account different methods of teaching and the multitude of norms and standards of human rights. A program that is top–down (teacher–learner) orientated, and focuses on specific human rights issues such as children or minority rights only, will have a different impact than a program that focuses on the full spectrum of human rights.

Program evaluations or comparative case studies would be the two research areas to be looked into. In order to measure the impact and the effectiveness of HRE, key indicators and measurement methods have to be developed based on (a) what is taught to whom and (b) how it is taught. Both questions should lead to the development of a practical theory that is based on the observed facts of HRE and its causalities, patterns, and similarities between the content of education programs and their anticipated outcomes.

Open Area: Toward a Practical Theory of HRE and Governmental Accountability

A practical theory of HRE could help to explain the interlinkage and causalities among human rights standards, people’s needs, and long-term impact. To do this, normative human rights standards have to be matched with teaching methods, or bottom–up or top–down approaches. It can be anticipated that some of the findings will explain to what extent HRE changes societal behavior and why; whether this is short-term or long-term. Last but not least, it should explain how HRE contributes to stabilize societies by using nonviolent ways, conflict solving methods, and promoting mutual respect.

This leads to another unresolved area, namely making government accountable for not implementing HRE. Despite UN member states’ commitment in 1994 and the unanimous support for the World Program, governments have not yet been fully involved in supporting the mainstreaming of HRE in their countries (Cardenas 2005). This is due to several reasons: a lack of political interest, because HRE was outsourced to NGOs, or partly because governments lack resources to implement the right to education or HRE. Now, UN human rights treaty bodies and committees claim that, with the submission of the country reports and the periodic human rights reports, they will ask questions of governmental representatives at the UNO whether they work to disseminate the idea of human rights through HRE. This could lead to more accountability by states and transparency for the public in terms of HRE.


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