What Good Are Human Rights if We Don’t Know About Them?

15663Today we have a guest post from Monisha Bajaj, Associate Professor of International and Multicultural Education at the University of San Francisco and editor of Human Rights Education Theory, Research, Praxis. Bringing together the voices of leaders and researchers deeply engaged in understanding the politics and possibilities of human rights education as a field of inquiry, Human Rights Education shapes our understanding of the practices and processes of the discipline and demonstrates the ways in which it has evolved into a meaningful constellation of scholarship, policy, curricular reform, and pedagogy. Here, she talks about the importance of human rights education as we approach International Human Rights Day.

December 10 marks International Human Rights Day. Some 70 years ago, drafters of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights were busy haggling over words and concepts of this milestone document and global vision that it holds.  Its 30 articles—adopted in 1948—elaborate a vision of dignity, equality, and justice through the guarantee of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. One of the greatest challenges since the adoption of the Declaration has been that the most vulnerable individuals and communities have often lacked knowledge of their rights and the ways to achieve them. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that, “every individual and every organ of society shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.” As a result, human rights education that offers accessible, engaged, and transformative learning is the cornerstone of access to and fulfillment of all other human rights.

In the new book Human Rights Education: Theory, Research, Praxis, 20 scholars of human rights education across the globe posit their analyses of what human rights education is, what it does, and the ways in which it is localized in diverse corners of the world from Mexico to Malta, from Kenya to Kurdistan, and from the US to the UK.  The book offers a comprehensive introductory text on human rights education (HRE) that is both global in scope and attentive to the diverse forms of HRE whether implemented through governmental policies and textbook reforms; through the work of intergovernmental organizations (i.e. United Nations agencies like UNESCO and UNICEF); through colleges and universities; through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaging in teacher professional development, curriculum design or direct instruction; or through the work of individual educators, schools, and community activists.

Authors explore the promise of human rights education as it frames the diverse work of organizations seeking to empower, for example, dispossessed rural communities in Liberia and Dalit (formerly called “untouchable”) youth in India. Authors also note how human rights discourses can be co-opted in education to dismantle collective action for change and reframe it in terms of neoliberal and individualist notions of rights. The power, promise, and politics of human rights education are explored in varied contexts through this text divided into the sections of “Theory, Research and Praxis” as the title indicates.

Taken together, the 12 chapters and the afterword by human rights education pioneer Nancy Flowers substantively address the questions: What accounts for the emergence and rise of human rights education as a global educational reform? To what extent does transformative and empowering learning occur in HRE programs and initiatives? What can we learn from a global glimpse at the diverse ways HRE is conceptualized and practiced?  In what ways does HRE get localized and co-opted by different actors? And, what is the future of HRE?

As we celebrate this International Human Rights Day and the relevance of the Universal Declaration for a new generation, transformative human rights education must become a central component of discussions of educational policy and practice as it offers a necessary precondition for the achievement of all other human rights. As Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Education shall be directed 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.” Our times necessitate a renewed commitment to such an expansive vision of justice, and the role of education in achieving it.

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