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Rio +20: Educating for the Future

Rio de Janeiro, 21 June 2012 -- During the recent Rio +20 Sustainable Development Conference in Rio de Janeiro (Brasil) from 20-22 June, HREA's director Frank Elbers presented on a panel on educating for sustainable development called "The Future We Create", which HREA co-organised with Soka Gakkai International, Centre for Environment Education (CEE), CSD Education Caucus, and Inter Press Service (IPS). Below are some observations on how the human rights education movement has used the international framework to advance human rights education.

Frank Elbers presents at Rio +20
HREA's director Frank Elbers presents during panel at Rio +20 on 20 June 2012

Frank Elbers, Executive Director, Human Rights Education Associates (HREA): "Thank you for inviting me as a relative outsider you could say.  Although human rights and the human rights framework addresses sustainable development and development and the environment, it really doesn’t focus on it.  I feel honored to be here tonight and talk a little bit about the experiences that we have in human rights education.  I also feel somewhat in a surprising position here because usually people do not come to us and say, “well we would love to hear and to learn about your experience.”  When Hiro [Hiro Sakurai, panel moderator, Director of the UN Liaison Office of Soka Gakkai International] approached me he said “you, meaning human rights educators, you already have a UN Decade for Human Rights Education that you already completed over eight years ago.  And you now have a World Programme for Human Rights Education.”  When he said that, I realized that is so very true.  That’s not to say that a framework like the UN Decade is sort of an absolute requisite for environmental education for sustainable development to happen.  Both of you [the previous speakers] have already highlighted various things that are already happening and have been happening for decades.

Thank you Pam [Pam Puntenney, Co-chair, CSD Education Caucus] for reminding us and going back to 1972, which is actually very interesting in that in human rights education in the 70s, similar initiatives were already being undertaken.  It took some time for them to actually get some traction, but they were there.  The main defining document of human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948 by the UN General Assembly, after WWII.  One of the main stipulations in that document that also followed in treaties afterwards, and human rights treaties that addressed all kinds of human rights issues, was the importance of education, the importance of everyone knowing about their rights.  The importance of the full enjoyment of human life was also very much emphasized in these documents.

The UN declared the UN Decade for Human Rights Education in 1995, which was almost two decades ago.  It really led to a whole range of activities globally, north, south, east, west, the governmental sector, intergovernmental sector, NGOs, civil society organizations, community based organizations, and, of course, the education sector, mainly in the formal schooling sector.  The UN put out a number of very practical guidelines on how to approach human rights education, what are the underlying values, what are some of the examples of curricula, what are some resources that you can use.  That is one of the successes going back to one of the questions you had asked:what are the successes of this decade? There are many more resources available.  For those people, those educators, those community leaders who wanted to bring human rights to the classroom and human rights to communities.

Another success was that through that UN Decade for Human Rights Education, a coalition, even a movement, was started, which is different from the human rights movement in general.  I think it is also different from the environmental movement, which is so broad.  There really was such a thing as a human rights education movement that was created by many people that would call themselves human rights educators.  Whether they were teachers in secondary schools, or elementary schools, or whether they were professors at institutes of higher education, or whether they were trainers of law enforcement who also need to be aware of the human rights and the various international standards, the human rights standards that exist.  That was definitely another success and that actually led to some of the follow-up.

When we look at some of the downsides, the failures of this UN Decade -- there were definitely not enough resources, not enough materials.  There were teaching and learning materials in various languages, but not enough.  Not every teacher who wanted to bring human rights to the classroom had the resources that he or she was looking for.

Another thing, which I think is a lesson learned, was there really was no monitoring mechanism.  We really were working with anecdotal evidence.  There was no baseline.  Governments reported annually to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva on what they had done in human rights based on a checklist saying okay, do you have a curriculum?  What’s happening when you are teaching in these institutions?  What is happening in terms of training and humanitarian law in the armed forces?  What do you do with other government officials like law enforcement officials and teachers?  But it was all very spotty, anecdotal and also most of these questionnaires were never returned.  That was definitely a failure, and at the time a lesson learned.

Finally, there was basically an implementation gap, which means that there were a lot of resources, there were a lot of materials, a lot of support and policies in place, but we didn’t quite know how much was actually happening in the classroom or in the community centers, or in police academies. The record of ten years of human rights education, sort of being under the lime light at the international level, was rather mixed.

We are now under the World Programme for Human Rights Education which started in 1995, at the end of the UN Decade.  That really continues to put human rights education on the agenda, on the agenda of the UN, on the agenda of various governments, but also regional, intergovernmental organizations like the Organization of American States, the various regional organizations in Europe like the Council of Europe, and to a lesser extent in Africa and Asia.

The World Programme really means that governments still need to report on their responsibility to aid, educate, and train anyone who are so-called duty bearers, so anyone who has a responsibility to uphold, to defend and to respect human rights i.e. government officials.  They still report out on that in a much more accurate manner than they used to under the Decade.  It also means that there is still a movement of educators that can really refer to this World Programme, when they are trying to do something in their communities, or when they are trying to go to the Ministry of Education and say something like “we really want to do something in our community on human rights and human rights education.”  Therefore, in that respect, this World Programme is really useful.

Finally, the World Programme and the preceding Decade for Human Rights Education has actually led to the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training last December by the UN General Assembly in NY.  That Declaration doesn’t actually mean that human rights education is part of international law, but it has some quite strong language about the importance of human rights in curricula, in learning in general, in life-long learning.  Learning is an on-going process. 

There is actually one more step that needs to be taken.  And that is to mainstream human rights education.  What I mean by that is to not only look at human rights education as only the education.  Kartikeya also referred to this in that education for sustainable development (ESD) has a “for” in between, it’s not just human rights as a subject matter.  In fact there is no room in the curriculum.  Every time that I hear people mention education, they always tell me “well, we are into traffic education, then we have life-skills education, and we have do environmental education, not to mention that we have history, social studies, science, math and what have you.  So please don’t come with human rights education on top of that.”  It is really more values based.  It really needs to be cross-curricular.  It needs to be much more coordinated.  I think that is also very much true for education for sustainable development.  It’s not just a subject matter.  It’s a way of thinking.  It’s a values model that everyone needs to take responsibility for.  That is one way of mainstreaming human rights education.

The second way is actually through the, not perfect, but existing UN system.  I can say that here.  The human rights system actually has a reporting system in which countries have to either report on treaties, human rights treaties that they have ratified, that they adhere to or because some other mechanism, but what these countries could do.  We actually try to do that with coalitions, and try to encourage them that what they actually have to do is to report on what is actually happening in their countries in human rights education.  What are you doing as the government of India or the government of the United States to actually promote human rights values, to learners, be it the young learners, the youth or continuing education learners?

I’m going to wrap up with a little anecdote that I use to underline one important aspect, which is: be patient.  My organization was established in the year that the UN Decade for Human Rights Education was proclaimed in 1995.  We at the time thought "well, after the Decade we can dissolve ourselves because the work will be done, human rights education will have gained traction and will be everywhere, and accessible to everyone".  That was somewhat mistaken, somewhat optimistic.  It could be youthful ignorance, but I guess the message that I try to get across is that we really need to be patient.  ESD was first mentioned in 1972, at the Stockholm Conference.   This is a long-term process and we need to continue to fight, we need to continue to push for education being about sustainable development and human rights.  Thank you.


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