Human Rights Education: A Personal Voyage

Foreword to "Human Rights Education in the 21st Century" (Penn State University Press, March 1997)

All of the contributors to this book are pioneers in the new, vast and broadly defined field of human rights education. They believe that such education offers hope for the future of our children and the destiny of humanity as a whole. They form a community of concern with a program for action. Their program promotes people learning to safeguard and hold fast to their dignity and freedom — women, men and children engaged in learning about human rights in the context of their struggles and their daily lives. I invite you to join this community which sees human rights as a fully comprehensive, holistic value system capable of guiding our lives beneficially and serving abuses of our human rights. Human rights education is essential to a genuine process of global social change, and it should be included in educational and cultural activities in every society throughout the world.

The essays in this volume supply many reasons — social, legal and political — for promoting human rights education. There are personal reasons as well. People often come to human rights education because of a transforming personal experience. For me, it all started in Israel in agonizing conversations with my dearest friend, the late Achi Yotam, and Adlerian psychologist. Achi, my husband and friend Jerry, and I often discussed the question of how and why the oppressed turn into oppressors. One night we talked until morning light appeared over the far mountains. We shared our deep distress over recent developments in our community, including abuses of the human rights of Palestinians. With idealism and perhaps some naiveté we sought to find Archimedes' fulcrum: the distinct leverage point which, when discovered can effect genuine and lasting change. In human terms, we agreed, that point is dignity. If we take human dignity seriously, we must join forces to reject, remove and fully eliminate the gap of dignity between people in all societies across the globe, beginning with out own. As a result of this clarifying analysis, I resolved to work with Palestinians for a Two State Solution. At the time, while the Intefada pitched stones against bullets competing in a deadly game, I saw clearly that human rights education may be a way to learn to look at our lives from the perspective of compassion and social justice and with the humility needed to break through the vicious cycle of humiliation in which we all participate.

Humiliation is the enemy of human dignity. Humiliation is a powerful experience, the impasse to being human. In defending our dignity, we refuse to be humiliated. We must recognize this in others. Unless we learn to live a life in which we do not degrade, disgrace, demean or violate the dignity of the other on any level, personal or communal, the cycle of violence, oppression and abuse will go on ad infinitum.

Value clarification, at once a process and one of the central objectives of human rights education, must allow each person so involved to draw upon her and his own lights and experience. I draw commitment to human rights education from the prophets Isaiah and Micah, Mohammed, Jesus, and Buddha, as well as Karl Marx, Martin Buber, Alfred Adler, Mahatmda Ghandi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. My parents, Daniel and Malka Zechory taught me that all human beings are born equal in dignity, and my husband and three sons taught me how to make my voyage of promoting of human rights education without concessions. Many friends encouraged me in the founding and the development of the Organizing Committee for the Peoples Decade of Human Rights Education: Betty Reardon, Richard Claude, Stephen Marks, Clarence Dias, Mado Spiegler, Tara Krause, Donna Hicks, Elsa Stamatopoulou, Fatma Alloo, Susana Chiarotti, Loretta Ross, Suhier Azzuni, Orli Lubin, Walter Lichem, Ivanka Corti and Upendra Baxi, to mention just a few whose energies joined the walk toward human rights education.

We invite you to accompany us in this journey, encouraging your own communities to engage in dialogue about human rights as inalienable, indivisible and interconnected guide markers in the struggle for justice.

At the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in 1995, the Peoples Decade of Human Rights Education organized a nine day Institute for Human Rights Education. Twenty women from twenty countries presented their own human rights education training manuals. They focused on women's human rights and gender equality, and they shared in common the conviction that if all people understood social, economic and civil injustices as human rights violations, then a path toward justice could be developed at the community level for women, men, youth and children.

Our Beijing Institute asked one question but in many forms reflecting the cultures of the participants:

Of course, these questions help to open dialogue, but they only begin the process. We must press on tenaciously, keeping our own experiences in mind. For example, how do we start, even in our own families, to learn about equality and that differences between women and men are not liabilities but the joy, inspiration and celebration of uniqueness that simultaneously define and unite us? Human rights education has many more questions than answers. This is because the answers must come from the people themselves as they become empowered to identify their problems, define their needs, and invoke human rights norms around which they find answers and formulate plans of action.

Identifying problems, defining needs, clarifying norms, formulating and undertaking plans of action: this is the process of human rights education for empowerment. Those who by now have undertaken it in over 100 countries can testify that it is a powerful process. Human rights education for empowerment can help to mobilize people in their own communities to use the space created by the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2005) in the same way the UN Decade of Women was used to enrich and strengthen the women's movement.

The Women's Decade helped millions of women to see their problems as interconnected to the struggles of others elsewhere. Can human rights education in a Bangladesh village, where authorities promote farming for export instead of for local consumption, help its residents to respond to the hurtful impacts of globalization-plans that leave human lives out of the equation? And more challenging, can ties of solidarity be built whereby Bangladeshi issues may be seen as linked to the struggle against racism and poverty in other areas of the world, including the United States? Can human rights education help to bring sanity to those who speak of sustainable development yet forget that sustainability is impossible unless sustained by people's potential both to participate in the realization of their human rights and, as well, to enhance their creative potential to contribute to their own progress?

In Copenhagen, in a meeting with 120 representatives from non-governmental organizations, we were told: human rights education is development. In my view, several important notions are entailed in this statement and have important implications for human rights education. While these notions may seem abstract, I will share a concrete illustration of each flowing from actual human rights education projects.

The first notion is that human rights constitute the common heritage of all humankind. Human rights are a legacy passed from one generation to the next and as such this heritage should be a central subject of education. It is available from childhood onward to share in energy and life-force of a world where human rights norms should become the underpinnings of social change, breaking through the vicious cycle of humiliation and the imposition of suffering on humans by fellow humans that so ruthlessly and shamelessly dwells among us.

Item. In a rural county in Georgia, USA, a teacher working with mentally disabled children participated in a group assembled to learn about human rights. Typically human rights standards were contrasted with a listing of specific human rights violation affecting mentally disabled children. At the end of the first discussion, one teacher rose and spoke with great passion. He said that his training was steeped in the culture and tradition of the Deep South but that in learning about human rights he had to see some of his training and practices as parochial and narrow. He said, "I now realize that for the last 25 years I have been violating the human rights of the children with whom I have been working. I want to know more so that we can stop these practices."

Second, human rights should frame human discourse and dialogue. Human rights calls for a dialogue that recognizes that freedom without law is anarchy and law without freedom is tyranny. The task of human rights education, in this context, is to provide dialogue about the fine balance among culture, law and freedom and the point of intersection of these three where one is denied their dignity, and where we learn actively to solve the concerns of individuals and communities about class, gender and race by committing ourselves without compromise to a human rights way of life.

Item. In Natal, South Africa, as part of a project of human rights education on women's human rights and gender equality, rural women decided to enter into a dialogue with their Chiefs, with whom they spent many months discussing equality and the imperatives of women's participation in the decisions that determine their lives in the private and public arenas. In December, 1995, the local government held regional council elections. Of those who participated in the dialogue with the Chiefs, 22 women ran for office, and eight of them were elected to the 15 seats.

Third, human rights are needed to protect people from harm and to help them protect themselves. Viewing human rights as preventives to human rights violations and as mechanisms for protection and the redress of grievances is an essential quality of human rights standards. As a consequence, we must come around to seeing that human rights education means people, individually and in groups, acquiring the knowledge and perspectives to protect themselves from human rights violators and to remedy the wrongs they endure.

Item. As a direct result of human rights education in Israel, the Arab community with the aid of human rights activists brought together 40 Arab mayors who agreed about the importance of grievances on the issue of land and housing. They presented these grievances to the UN Human Rights Subcommission in Geneva and to the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Treaty Body. Some of these actions, in fact, initiated a process to overturn discriminatory practices against Arabs in Israel.

These three examples illustrate but a few of the kinds of activities associated with effective programs of human rights education. One of the reasons why such education is taking hold all over the world is that it brings people around to speaking the common language of human rights which has become a global lingua franca addressing social, political, cultural and economic issues worldwide. One of the contributors to this volume, Professor Upendra Baxi has written that "perhaps no single phrase in recent human history has been privileged to bear the mission or burden of human destiny more than 'human rights' in the last fifty years." In his book Inhuman Wrongs and Human Rights, Unconventional Essays, he adds: "the great gift of classical and contemporary human thought to culture and civilization is the notion of human rights. The struggle to preserve, protect and promote basic human rights continues in every generation in each society." From this premise, we should understand that human rights education will fulfill its mission if it joins in this struggle.

A Hebrew word I carry in my heart is, Sha've, one word with two meanings which are one: "equal" and "worthy." Sha've in my human rights dictionary is the message contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sha've is the hope we have lost in our transgressions. Sha've is the meaning we discover in human rights education in the context of struggle to overcome all injustice. Human rights is truth limited in words but bewitched by its own expectations, a tension never to be resolved but with the nourishment of hope. Those who join us in human rights education join us in an exciting voyage where real hope lies.