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Global Appeal for Human Rights Learning

Background Document

[ Appeal ] [ Endorsers ]


The Peoples Movement for Human Rights Learning (PDHRE), the organization that initiated the idea of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education, has sponsored the Global Appeal for Human Rights Learning on the occasion of Human Rights Day 2004. On this day, a plenary meeting of the General Assembly will be held to review the achievements of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education, 1995-2004, and to discuss possible future activities for the enhancement of human rights education.

In sponsoring the Global Appeal for Human Rights Learning, PDHRE is reaching out to governments and civil society to redouble their efforts to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the basis for a human rights culture shared by all peoples and each individual. The Decade ending on Human Rights Day 2004 did not and could not accomplish this ambitious goal. In order to stimulate thinking on how to move this agenda forward for the next decade, the Global Appeal refers to the concept of "human rights learning" and stresses the instrumental function of this form of learning for the realization of "freedom from fear and freedom from want." We are convinced that learning human rights is the essential means of ensuring that norms of the Universal Declaration become a living reality for all, and a way of life.

Human rights learning and the challenges of the new millennium

The Global Appeal is based on the premise that all people must know their human rights in order to become agents of change to establish human rights as the foundation of the "social and international order" to which the Declaration refers. Human rights learning is proposed as an antidote to the conditions of poverty, environmental destruction, violence and oppression that jeopardize life with dignity in all regions. There is clearly a "chasm of despair" that separates the lives of most of the population of the world and the conditions of life promised by the holistic vision of human rights. The Global Appeal considers that human rights learning can bridge that chasm and liberate us from the prison of ignorance because it empowers us all to know, claim and make real our universal and inalienable human rights.

Much progress has been made in the promotion and protection of human rights. To recall these achievements is at the same time also to draw attention to the vast amount that remains to be done. Many peoples of the world know full well the value of a world order and global change that respects human rights. They aspire to become subjects, rather than remaining the objects, of development.

The structures of exclusion, humiliation, deprivation and inequality are the antithesis of sustainable and human development, which governments and institutions of the United Nations have defined and are struggling to ensure for the peoples of the world for whom these concepts are too often only a distant mirage. For this to happen, all obstacles in the enjoyment and exercise of human rights have to be identified and overcome.

Human rights learning remains critical to any understanding of what has been achieved and to any agenda of change. Particularly disquieting for the fostering of human rights cultures throughout the world remain the ominous events of the first four years of the 21st century. While nothing justifies the use of terror, whether a distorted religious belief or any other purpose, the failure to preserve human rights while combating this plague serves to intensify terrorism. The international community is justifiably outraged by acts of war, terrorism and genocide, which have tarnished this as well as the past century, in spite of imperative norms of international law prohibiting these most hideous aberrations of human behaviour.

The recent past has increasingly been marked by two contradictory developments: on the one hand we have benefited from increasingly trans-national integration facilitated by technologies for rapidly expanding access to information, communication, and interaction; on the other hand we have suffered processes of societal disintegration, clashes among cultures and growing societal gaps due to poverty, lack of education, marginalization, humiliation and exclusion. We are confronting new slaveries, trade in human beings, trafficking of women and children, organized crime, terrorism, civil wars and conflicts, which reduce our societal cohesion and begin to dominate both our security and our development agendas. Human rights knowledge is essential to understanding the true nature of these problems.  Human rights learning is essential to applying that knowledge to their resolution.

The meaning of human rights learning

We believe that deep awareness of the human rights grounding of decent behaviour is not just a matter of cognitive learning; it involves affective and moral learning that is often not captured by the expression "human rights education" and is perhaps better conveyed by "human rights learning." Human rights learning is the route to the realization of human rights.  Traditional education emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge through the transfer of information. Transformative learning empowers women and men to act on the basis of knowledge and to participate in decisions that result in meaningful economic social change.

Human rights learning is all-encompassing, comprehensive, life-long. It operates with respect for the plurality of education and learning processes and the cultural diversity of our societies while providing the acquisition of universally shared values and a commitment to just relationships. 

Learning together also means unlearning the inhumanity, violence and injustice that plague the human condition. Learning from the experiences of people is as valuable as traditional teaching to embed the qualities of humility, empathy and mutual respect that underlie human rights. The voices of people deprived of human rights—and thus of their human dignity—are indispensable guides to learning our shared duties to the community and to constructing a world where every individual and all organs of society secure universal respect for human rights for all. Through dialogue, interaction and learning we move from information to knowledge to realization of the imperatives of social justice and the dignity of life. We harness the energies of all people to develop a shared global culture of human rights.

Experience worldwide in the first Decade for Human Rights Education has shown that people embrace a broader vision of human rights learning, which relates human rights and fundamental freedoms to our understanding of economic and social development, environmental sustainability, peace, human security and human dignity. People want to "own" human rights in ways that make their life vision complete. They seek a people-centered approach to good governance, one in which the gains of the past fifty plus years of human rights will not be reversed by trading away human rights to facilitate global trade,

and investment flows. They everywhere demand that national budgets and international development assistance be constantly appraised in terms of allocations for the enjoyment and realization of human rights by all, but especially for the millennially deprived, hurt and harmed communities and new communities of misfortune constantly arising from mass industrial disasters, environmental degradation, militarized polities, ethnic wars, and patterns of management of transition for the expansively growing post-conflict societies. They repudiate the cultures of impunity and insist that the exercise of public power remain exposed to new forms of accountability and responsibility created by expanding global human rights cultures. They constantly erect the rampart of human dignity against forces that would otherwise confiscate their claim to a human rights estate.

People, in the experience of human rights learning, also emerge as differentiated communities. Women everywhere demand freedom from the yoke of patriarchy, with its manifold impositions of a vicious cycle of humiliation. People with disability demand a charter of human rights that will respect their human rights as well as combat the structural causes of human disablement. Indigenous populations call for understanding of human rights that enacts principled respect for civilizational difference. Those caught in the vicious forms of human trafficking summon an urgent and purposeful action program. Children of the world claim protection from sexual abuse, chattel slavery, hunger, conscription into war and war-like operations, and claim their just human rights to health, livelihood, literacy and education. Those violated by practices of "ethnic cleansing" insistently demand reparative and retributive justice. So do those violated by practices of torture, inhuman degrading treatment and punishment. The migrant and asylum seeking peoples protest arbitrary, often brutal, siege mentality that altogether confiscates their minimal human rights. Workers, organized and unorganized, insist on a fairer globalization consistent with an affirmation of their human rights. Peoples everywhere, further insist on a community of human rights, which integrates equal concern for civil and political rights as well as social, economic, and cultural rights. For them, human rights learning already emerges as a tool and program for social transformation.

Learning from those who suffer rather than teaching from the high perch of authority defines the common future for human rights education. The practices of human rights activism worldwide underscore the public virtue of humility in learning from the communities of rights-deprived peoples everywhere. The expert systems on which we necessarily rely for the formulations of the norms and institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights also need to learn that the right-deprived human beings remain our best possible guides in safeguarding the futures of human rights. They know foremost what social and human suffering is and the ways in which the tasks of its amelioration should shape a new global agenda for human rights learning.

What is to be done?

The challenge at the closing of the first United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education summons us all to go beyond the celebration of its modest achievements and to deepen the commitment of governments and empower civil society to reach the goals of the Decade for Human Rights Education through a commitment to human rights learning. In light of an emergent consensus strategy for meeting the Millennium Development Goals, for conflict prevention and peace keeping, good governance, peace, development, and social and economic justice, in sum, for the entire range of the goals of the UN system, human rights learning must become the priority of this next phase of human rights education.

The Global Appeal calls for determined action to make human rights learning a vital and dynamic means of empowering people to fulfil the promise of the Universal Declaration.  Our immediate challenge is to stimulate reflection throughout the UN system on how to implement human rights education and learning in a holistic way as a high priority of the United Nations. Certainly, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNESCO have system-wide responsibility for leadership in the implementation of major programmes for human rights learning, throughout all sectors of society. In this regard, we endorse the recommendations of the expert consultation convened at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2004 and urge the institutions concerned to implement them, especially in terms of community based human rights learning.

The Global Appeal is thus a call upon governments, civil society and international organizations to embrace the people–oriented concept of human rights learning and to undertake new programs and revise existing ones to reflect and implement this vision. The Global Appeal calls for actions in general terms and it is for those to whom it is addressed to define how to respond. For example, the Secretary-General could apply the understanding of human rights learning proposed in the Global Appeal throughout the cross-cutting human rights dimension of his reform of the United Nations system. We encourage the development of regional centres for the promotion and support of human rights learning programs. The Global Appeal is a call to governments that have developed national plans of action for human rights education to implement them in a participatory and inclusive way and to those that have not developed such plans of action to do so, also in a participatory and inclusive way. These national and regional efforts require the involvement of civil society, universities, faith-based organizations, the media, and the private sector.

We applaud the efforts by non-governmental organizations, as well as the Office of the United Nations Secretary General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, specialized agencies and programs, such as UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO, UNCTAD, UNDP, and the ILO, to build networks of peoples and institutions engaged in human rights learning, to promote international exchanges, to assess and disseminate best practices and support community-based human rights learning, and urge them to expand these efforts.

The Global Appeal is released on the occasion of Human Rights Day 2004 in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the General Assembly proclaimed fifty-six years ago "to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance…"

The common element of our emerging agenda is the growing focus on the human being both as the victim of the new threats and challenges and as actor and perpetrator. Human development, human security and human rights have been recognized as inter-related, mutually conditioning coordinates of our agenda. Governments and state structures alone cannot assure the response to these challenges any longer. Only with active participation of women and men, empowered through human rights learning, can we hope to meet these challenges and fulfil the aspirations of the people on whose behalf the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed.


For more information, please contact PDHRE:
The People's Movement for Human Rights Learning, 526 West 111th Street, New York, NY 10025
tel: 212.749-3156; fax: 212.666-6325; e-mail: pdhre@igc.org