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Emerging Models of Human Rights Education

By Felisa Tibbitts*

In this adaptation of an article prepared for the International Review of Education, (Special Human Rights Education edition, 2002), Felisa Tibbitts, director of Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) looks at how we can enhance the effectiveness of human rights education (HRE). She presents three operating models for human rights education: the Values and Awareness Model, Accountability Model and Transformational Model. Each of these models is analyzed according to their target groups, goals for learners and intended contribution to social change. Ms. Tibbitts concludes by outlining ways in which the field can be further developed, professionalized and recognized.

Over the last 12 years, the term "human rights education" (HRE) has slipped into the language of ministries of education, educational nonprofits, human rights organizations and teachers -- not to mention intergovernmental agencies such as the United Nations and regional agencies such as the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Nancy Flowers, in The Human Rights Education Handbook, defines HRE as "all learning that develops the knowledge, skills and values of human rights." Human rights education involves the learner's valuing and understanding of these principles, which are typically "problematized" for that particular society. At the national levels we can observe quite different approaches to the use of HRE in addressing widespread human rights and development challenges. In developing countries, for instance, HRE is often linked with economic and community development, and women's rights. In post-totalitarian or authoritarian countries, human rights education is commonly associated with the development of civil society and the infrastructures related to the rule of law and protection of individual and minority rights. In older democracies, it is often conjoined favorably with the national power structure but geared towards reform in specific areas, such as penal reform, economic rights and refugee issues. Human rights education also seems to be playing a specialized role in post-conflict societies.

These examples focus on human rights problems and issues at the community level. Human rights education involves a combination of looking within and looking without. Human rights learning is necessarily focused on the individual -- the knowledge, values and skills that pertain to the application of the human rights value system in interpersonal relationships with family and community members. Nancy Flowers and others talk about some of these "human development" skills that recognize one's own biases, accept differences, take responsibility for defending the rights of others, as well as mediation and conflict resolution in The Human Rights Education Handbook. Yet those organizing human rights education programming must take into account the social, cultural, political and economic contexts for their work, and the potential such education will have for social transformation.

In fact, education has a complex and demanding role to play in upholding human rights, supporting human development and promoting civil society. In order for human rights education -- and human rights thinking -- to be a lasting contribution to human rights cultures in our respective countries, we need to truly understand the distinct models of human rights education that are found in practice, and to clarify their link with social change strategies. The focus of this article originates from the current proliferation of human rights education programming and the sense that educators and advocates of human rights -- those leading training sessions, developing materials and designing programs -- could benefit by revisiting the question of how education and training strategies can contribute to social transformation. HRE is ultimately about action for building human rights cultures in our own communities, and programming must be evaluated on its ability to contribute to this general goal.

Human Rights Education and Advocacy

Because most societies struggle to better embody human rights principles, education about human rights implies education leading towards advocacy. But this idea is quite general.

In terms of engendering social change, HRE would need to be strategically designed to reach and support individuals and groups that can work towards these goals. For example, with specific target groups, HRE would be related to the following social change framework:

Fostering and enhancing leadership. In order to bring about social change, it is necessary to have a committed group who have not only a vision but are politically aware. These leaders will need skills for developing specific objectives and effective strategies for the political and cultural environment in which they reside.

Coalition and alliance development. Education can be a tool for preparing individuals for their leadership responsibilities. Coalition and alliance development helps human rights activists to recognize how their mutual efforts can be successful in achieving social change goals.

Personal empowerment. The personal empowerment goal aims first at healing, then the development of community and then, social transformation. These dual and interrelated goals of personal empowerment and social change identify human rights education as unique when compared to other traditional educational programs, such as those outlined in "Strategizing for a Human Rights Movement in the U.S," coauthored with Lyn B. Neylon in Evaluation of Human Rights USA.

This diverse social change framework is potentially complex, but the language of describing human rights education is general. We know that HRE program content minimally addresses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), other related key human rights documents, and monitoring and accountability systems. An important point is that although human rights education has moved beyond simply spreading information about human rights law, these instruments (and related mechanisms of protection) remain central to any program. Without reference to these mechanisms or instructions about their use, human rights education has trouble distinguishing itself from other fields such as peace education or global education.

HRE programming also involves an interactive educational approach. The language of HRE speaks of being relevant to daily life and to employing methodologies that engage participants in attitudinal skill as well as knowledge development. The participatory approach is viewed as motivating, humanizing and ultimately practical, since this form of learning is linked more strongly with attitudinal or behavioral change than with a pure lecturing approach.

Emerging Models of HRE

Models represent an idealized framework for understanding contemporary human rights education practice. The rationales for each model are linked implicitly with particular target groups and a strategy for social change and human development. Because of the abstract nature of the models below, they are necessarily lacking in detail and depth. For example, there is no distinction between formal, nonformal and informal educational approaches. The point of presenting these models, however, is to begin to classify the kinds of HRE practices that we find in the field, to revisit their internal program logic and to clarify their external link with social transformation.

The discrete human rights education models presented here can be compiled into an adapted version of the "learning pyramid." At the large base, we would find the "values and awareness models," in the middle, the "accountability model," and at the narrow top, the "transformational model."

The placement of these HRE models in these positions reflects not only the size of the target populations with which they each deal (from educating the general public all the way up to creating new advocates) but also the degree of difficulty for each of the educational programs. Mass public education programs are about dissemination of programming, whereas the creation and capacity-building of activists require more complex and reciprocal longer-term commitments from all involved. All the levels are mutually reinforcing, but certain models are obviously more essential to promoting social change -- depending upon the status of a human rights movement within a particular community. A social reform program needs strong leadership that is focused on institutional and legal reform. However, a movement also needs grass-roots support, where the focus is on the individual and community supports.

In designing their programming, therefore, human rights educators need to take into account both need and opportunity. The educator may decide to implement a program solely based on their personal values, experiences, resources and position in society. However, the educator might also consider how the educational program he or she is planning to implement relates to the HRE models introduced in this article, and how likely the program will support a movement towards a more fully realized human rights culture in the particular community or society.

Model 1 -- Values and Awareness

In the "values and awareness model," the main focus of human rights education is to transmit basic knowledge of human rights issues and to foster its integration into public values. Public education awareness campaigns and school-based curriculum typically fall within this realm. It is not unusual for school curricula that include human rights to link up with fundamental democratic values and practice.

The goal is to pave the way for a world that respects human rights through an awareness of and commitment to the normative goals laid out in the Universal Declaration and other key documents. Human rights topics that would apply to this model include a history of human rights, information about key human rights instruments and mechanisms of protection, and international human rights concerns (e.g., child labor, trafficking and genocide). The key pedagogical strategy is engagement: to attract the interest of the participant. These methods can be quite creative (for example, when using media campaigns or popular streetside education) but can also devolve into a lecture-oriented approach. However, this model places relatively little emphasis on the development of skills, such as those related to communication, conflict resolution and activism.

The implicit strategy is that mass support for human rights will continue to bear pressure upon authorities to protect human rights. This approach typically also fosters critical thinking and the ability to apply a human rights framework when analyzing policy issues. Thus, students are made to be "critical consumers" of human rights.

It is unclear if the knowledge and awareness approach does build to a "critical human rights consciousness" although this would presumably be a goal of such a program. Critical human rights consciousness might have the following criteria, as outlined in Garth Meintjes' article "Human Rights Education as Empowerment: Reflections on Pedagogy" in Human Rights Education for the Twenty-First Century:

  • the ability of students to recognize the human rights dimensions of, and their relationship to, a given conflict- or problem-oriented exercise;
  • an expression of awareness and concern about their role in the protection or promotion of these rights;
  • a critical evaluation of the potential responses that may be offered;  
  • an attempt to identify or create new responses;
  • a judgment or decision about which choice is most appropriate; and
  • an expression of confidence and a recognition of responsibility and influence in both the decision and its impact.

Some examples of the values and awareness model include human rights-related lessons within citizenship, history, social science and law-related education classes in schools, and infusion of human rights-related themes into both formal and informal youth programming (e.g., the arts, Human Rights Day, debate clubs). Public awareness campaigns involving public art and advertising, media coverage and community events may also be classified under this model.

Model 2 -- Accountability

Under the "accountability model," participants are already expected to be directly or indirectly associated with the guarantee of human rights through their professional roles. In this group, HRE focuses on the ways in which professional responsibilities involve either directly monitoring human rights violations and advocating with the necessary authorities or taking special care to protect the rights of people (especially vulnerable populations) for whom they have some responsibility.

Within this model, the assumption of all educational programming is that participants will be directly involved in the protection of individual and group rights. The threat of the violation of rights, therefore, is seen as inherent to their work. For advocates, the challenge is to understand human rights law, mechanisms of protection, and lobbying and advocacy skills. For other professional groups, educational programs sensitize them about the nature of human rights violations and potentials within their professional role, not only to prevent abuses but to promote respect for human dignity. Human rights training and topics are geared towards these specialized areas, and outcomes are geared towards content as well as skill-development.

Examples of programs falling under the accountability model are the training of human rights and community activists on techniques for monitoring and documenting human rights abuses and procedures for registering grievances with appropriate national and international bodies. Also falling within this classification are pre-service and in-service trainings for lawyers, prosecutors, judges, police officers and the military, which may include information about relevant constitutional and international law, professional codes of conduct, supervisory and grievance mechanisms, and consequences of violations. Professional groups, such as health and social service workers, journalists and other members of the media, are the recipients of HRE programming aimed at accountability.

Within the accountability model, personal change is not an explicit goal, since it assumes that professional responsibility is sufficient for the individual having an interest in applying a human rights framework. The model does, however, have the goal of structurally based and legally guaranteed norms and practices related to human rights. It is a given within this model, that social change is necessary, and that community-based, national and regional targets for reform can be identified.

Model 3 -- Transformational

In the "transformational model," HRE programming is geared towards empowering the individual to both recognize human rights abuses and to commit to their prevention. In some cases, whole communities -- not just the individual -- are treated as the target audience. This model involves techniques (based partly on developmental psychology) that involve self-reflection and support within the community. A formal focus on human rights is only one component of this model, however. The complete program may also include leadership development, conflict resolution training, vocational training, work and informal fellowship.

The transformational model assumes that students have had personal experiences that can be seen as human rights violations (the program may assist in this recognition) and that they are therefore predisposed to become promoters of human rights. It treats individuals more holistically, but it is therefore more challenging in its design and application.

This model can be found in programs operating in refugee camps, in post-conflict societies, with victims of domestic abuse and with groups serving the poor. There are examples of "human rights communities," where governing bodies, local groups and citizens "examine traditional beliefs, collective memory and aspirations as related to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," such as those supported by the People's Decade for Human Rights Education, as part of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education, which was officially proclaimed from 1995 to 2004.

In some cases, this model can be found in school settings, where an in-depth case study on a human rights violation (such as the Holocaust and genocide) can serve as an effective catalyst for examining human rights violations. In some sophisticated programs, students are asked to consider the ways in which they and others have both been victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses, thus using psychological techniques to overcome the "we" versus "they" mentality and to increase a sense of personal responsibility. Graduates of such programs are positioned to recognize and protect their own rights and those of others they come in contact with.

Should schools choose to do so, the HRE curricula could address participation in family decision-making; respect for parents but rejection of family violence; and equality of parents within the home.

Strengthening the Human Rights Education Field

This article has focused on the elaboration of human rights education models as a tool for classifying educational programs, clarifying their target groups and requiring us to consider their link with the overall goal of human development and social change. Hopefully, these models will lend themselves to both reflective program design as well as to further work in the area of theory development and research.

There are other ways that human rights educators can take steps to further programming, however. If human rights education is to become a genuine field, then we are challenged to become more coherent (even among our diversity of models), to be unique (offering value and outcomes that other educational programs cannot) and to be able to replicate ourselves.

In order for human rights education to become more qualified as a field, there are several areas that we must begin to review, analyze and document.

  • We need detailed examples within the HRE field that illustrate the careful use of learning theory appropriate to the context of the program. For example, adult education programs should have designs (not just training agendas) that take into account the learning process of mature participants. School-based programs should be age- and developmentally appropriate. Programs designed for special populations, such as refugees or victims of abuse, should also reflect the necessary sensitivities.
  • Although the overall number of HRE trainings and courses have increased, there is as yet no clear objective standard for what constitutes a qualified human rights education trainer. At the moment, human rights education courses are led by those who have some kind of previous training experience. However, there is no national or international certificate to clarify and demonstrate the competencies of these educators; nor are there clear standards for study or practice. Training and curricular standards might further the status of HRE as a legitimate field, and also spark healthy conversation about learner goals and strategic change efforts.
  • The human rights education field needs evidence of having successfully achieved its goals, for all models. We need to learn which programs have been successful, and why. If the models proposed in this article have any credibility, they can be tested and clarified through program evaluation. These studies would evaluate the programs both on the basis of meeting goals in the areas of knowledge, values and skills (as appropriate) and also on the basis of contributing directly to advocacy and social change. Such research could not only enhance the quality of educational programming, but help to substantiate what is now primarily intuition about the importance of education within the human rights field.  

Human rights education has the prospect of evolving into a full-fledged field -- both within human rights and within education. In its current state, it is a collection of interesting and discrete programs. The idealized models presented here are important because they carry with them distinct strategies for helping to realize human rights cultures in our communities and countries. We can probably agree that we would want all three models represented in each of our societies, since they complement each other in promoting a dynamic human rights infrastructure. However, as individual educators, we need to make wise choices about where to invest our energies, and to be proactive in creating these opportunities within our societies. Reflection on these models, may assist in this process.

We are at an exciting time of enhanced public awareness and interest in human rights. We must not lose our chance to help make human rights education a critical approach to examining and building our societies.

[*] Appeared in Issues of Democracy, March 2002




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