Twelfth Workshop on Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region

Consultation of Non-Governmental Actors Doha, Qatar, 1 March 2004


Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is my pleasure to report to you today on the outcome of deliberations of the Working Group on Human Rights Education. This working group was relatively small in size but very diverse and robust in its deliberations. It consisted of representatives of Arabic countries, including the host country Qatar as well as Japan, the Philippines and Australia.

Because of time constraints I will provide you with only the general outline of our discussions and add my personal viewpoints where appropriate.

Allow me to start with a few comments of a general nature.

There was a general agreement that education, understood in the broadest sense of the word, is the key mechanism to ensure development of a non-discriminatory and fair civil society. There was also agreement that effective human rights education is in all our interests and that its aim should be to advance a society where the human rights of all are respected, protected and promoted.

Having said that, it needs to be recognized that education alone is usually not enough to achieve major shifts in human behavior and/or attitudes. Often the strong anti-discrimination laws that are in place have the capacity of significantly assisting educational processes in setting fair and just standards for society to follow. Even if it is not always possible to immediately win the hearts and minds of people and to change their attitudes, anti-discrimination legislation will usually impact on behavior in the short term; and in a longer time frame attitudinal change will follow. In countries where there is effective sex, race and disability legislation, change in behavior and attitudes were reported over time.

Finally, knowledge und understanding of human rights needs to be the subject of an on-going educational campaign. In other words there is no end date for human rights education. This is because children are being born every day; they grow up, commence schooling and continue to learn as life goes on. This is also because new human rights issues emerge every day and this requires us to learn new information and form judgments on an on-going basis. So we cannot drop the ball. There is the need for continuous education; therefore the group supported the establishment of a second decade for teaching human rights.

Now allow me to focus on some more practical questions, namely:

  • who is responsible for human rights education?
  • who should be targeted for human rights education to be most effective? and
  • how should human rights education be delivered?

So, who should be responsible for human rights education?

In an ideal world human rights standards would be learned in a family setting and then throughout one's life experiences. But the real world is much more complex. In some situations children learn prejudice, racial intolerance and sexist stereotypes in the family home. This creates a need for us to have institutional promotion of human rights ideas and standards. Such education should start as early as feasible and continue to be an ongoing feature as persons progress through their lives.

In most societies, human rights education is a joint responsibility of both national governments and of all other civil society institutions such as schools, churches, trade unions, universities, private enterprises, media, etc.

At the heart of this issue is the question of balance; to what extent are different players responsible for delivery of human rights education? What is the role of the government in particular? Does it have a key responsibility for human rights education? The response relates to the role of government played in any given society. Where the role of government is dominant, it should also have a leading role in human rights promotion. Where civil society is well advanced the education should be seen more as a shared responsibility.

The political and historical context of any state, will therefore establish the outer limitations of this. For instance in a state with no trace of pluralistic governance and rule of law you would expect different techniques to a state which has a clear separation of powers and strong democratic traditions and processes - a civil society which emanates unity of voice through diversity of opinion.

In any case it is also important to form partnerships between governments and the key institutions that comprise "civil society". This usually results in a much more effective delivery of human rights education.

There is also an important role for the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner, for the Asia Pacific Forum and other similar organizations to provide coordination of activities, transfer of know-how and best practice materials. And here I wish to congratulate the UN Acting Human Rights Commissioner on the proposal to develop country specific human rights assistance programs. I hope, however, that the office will maintain key elements of its current central policy development and clearing house functions.

Now to the second question: Who should be targeted for human rights education to be most effective? This question is clearly linked to the question about priorities. So what are the key priorities for human rights education?

Clearly there is a broad agreement that a particular focus of human rights education should be children of school age. Children are keen and able to learn and it is during their school years that their attitudes are being formed. There is, therefore, a clear need to incorporate human rights education into school curricula.

Here I would like to report on an interesting discussion about the relative merit of two different human rights education models adopted by Australia and the Philippines. In the Philippines - it was reported - human rights are incorporated into educational curricula for all schools; so every child attending school will have to attend classes on human rights. Australia is different. It has fully developed modules linked to different State/Territory curricula that are available for utilization by interested teachers. While this means that the Australian approach is more flexible and gives teachers a choice, it also means that some children may miss out on human rights education.

Another group which should be accorded priority in human rights education is people who play important roles in the development and maintenance of civil society, such as legislators, judges, the military, police, media etc. One can imagine the damage that can be done were leaders of our society to publicly display prejudice, racism or sexism. They need to perform as role models and then human rights education will be much easier for all of us.

Finally we come to the third question: How to best deliver human rights education? An integral part of this question clearly relates to the resources available for human rights education. Nobody has unlimited resources for educational activities. How much is needed is as difficult to answer as the question - how long is a piece of string? So instead we should define some guiding principles for the effective delivery of human rights education.

First, it is always useful to develop a well thought out national education plan. Such plans assist with focus. They best express educational aspirations, establish national goals, provide much needed leadership and assist with obtaining the necessary resources for educational activities. The national human rights education plans can be developed either as self-standing documents or as a part of national human rights plans of action.

Second, it is important to ensure that human rights education is delivered in a culturally sensitive way and is tailored to the educational needs of a particular society. The last statement, however should not be read as supporting cultural relativism in human rights education. It rather means that to adopt the principle of one size fits all to human rights education is a mistake and most likely would undermine its efficiency. It is not always wise to transplant educational programs from one country to another without first making appropriate adjustments.

Third, education programs need to be relevant and easily understood by the target groups. They need to be practical and relate to real life issues. For example programs for school children in Australia may deal with the stolen generation, refugees, bush-fires, ethnic diversity or bullying at schools. These issues may provide good "hooks" or departure points from which lively human rights discussion may develop in a classroom.

Four, a wide range of different delivery mechanisms are available for delivery of human rights messages, for example:

  • inclusion of human rights topics into school curricula;
  • campaigns on particular human rights issues, for example, trafficking of women and children;
  • organization of conferences, seminars and workshops on HR issues;
  • formal training for selected groups and train the trainer programs;
  • utilization of media, for example radio talk back programs;
  • conduct public inquiries into issues of major concern - most inquiries have the ability of placing human rights issues on the national agenda and to change public opinion because of long term, systematic coverage of an issue;
  • undertaking legal challenges on topical human rights issues; and
  • establishing web sites - for example this is a very successful method of communication in Australia where HREOC registered nearly 4.5 million page views in 2002 - 2003.

However, proper analysis of target audience and messages to be communicated must be undertaken before deciding on which of the above delivery mechanisms is to be used. Creativity and thinking outside the square should also be high on the agenda. Let us not forget that human rights education is about effective communication of values and standards to target audiences.

Finally, the effectiveness of human rights educational activities should be evaluated from time to time and there should be proper evaluation indicators established.

In conclusion, there was support for the idea that there is a need for a second UN decade for human rights education. However, this should only be undertaken after taking stock of the achievements of the first decade and should focus on areas of greatest need.

Consequently, the state parties to this workshop are encouraged to support the establishment of the second UN decade for human rights education to begin on 1 January 2005. National human rights institutions and non-government organizations are likewise encouraged to support this effort.

Last updated 16 March 2004