Towards A Pedagogy Of Human Rights Education

International Consultation on the Pedagogical Foundations of Human Rights Education


La Catalina, Costa Rica

22-26 July, 1996


  1. We, educators, activists, and scholars from various regions of the world, have met for five days at the Center for Democratic Studies in La Catalina, Costa Rica, to reflect on the pedagogical foundations of human rights education. We considered a wide range of experiences and approaches to issues of education in society, democracy and cultural diversity, gender perspectives, narratives of domination and oppression as well as of paths of liberation. We also reviewed the United Nations' programmes, resolutions and plan of action for the Decade for Human Rights Education. After freely exchanging diverse perspectives on these issues, we have agreed on the following elements of a pedagogy of human rights education.
  2. Our reflections are based on an assessment of the context within which learning takes place in different societies and the obstacles this context represents to human rights education. The need for this preliminary analysis derives from our premise that pedagogies for human rights education should reflect a commitment to transforming unjust structures in order to achieve the social and international order in which human rights can be fully realized and to which everyone is entitled, according to Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We recognize the need for wider and further discussion and welcome reactions from all interested parties.

The Context of Human Rights Education

  1. The content and methods of human rights education are inextricably linked to issues of maldevelopment, patriarchy, militarism and the pursuit of wealth by a few individuals, corporations and states at the expense of meeting people's needs everywhere. The human rights movement -- and consequently human rights education -- offers a coherent and necessary, but not sufficient, response to these threats to human survival and security.
  2. The relation between this context and human rights has been articulated in recent pronouncements of the international community. The World Conference on Human Rights, in the Declaration it adopted in Vienna in June 1993, recognized "that the international community should devise ways and means to remove the current obstacles and meet challenges to the full realization of all human rights . . ." After affirming that the universal nature of human rights "is beyond question," the Declaration stressed that "human rights education should include peace, democracy, development and social justice." The Vienna Declaration also stressed and the Declaration and Platform of Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women reaffirmed that the "full and equal enjoyment by women of all human rights must be a priority for governments and for the United Nations." In 1986, the UN adopted the Declaration on the Right to Development, which emphasized that the human person is the "central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development" and called upon states to take steps to eliminate obstacles to development resulting from failure to observe civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. The resolutions and plan of action of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education further addressed the linkages between the pedagogies that we wish to promote and the broader context which gives the undertaking meaning and within which the obstacles to human rights education can be understood.

Obstacles to Human Rights

  1. The possibility of effective human rights learning may be enhanced or impeded by the operation of major institutions within the nation state or operating internationally. For human rights education to be relevant and holistic, it is crucial to examine critically the problematique of development. While South nations individually and collectively are asserting the "right to development," through their governments, the citizens are entitled to raise questions about the meaning of development and who benefits therefrom. It is vital to ask how programmes and activities of international and national development impact on the rights of various sectors and groups in any society, and what alternative visions and strategies of development would meaningfully realize human rights aspirations.
  2. Human rights education, among other things, consists in a critical reflection on the historical processes which have brought about the obstacles to the realization of human rights, a critical analysis and understanding of the deeper structures and social and economic forces underpinning the obstacles both in the State and civil society and identification of sites and social agencies for the removal of such obstacles in the processes of social change and transformation. An aspiration of human rights education is to engage individuals and communities dialectically with the struggle against these obstacles. This aspiration requires more than knowledge of the content and mechanisms of international human rights instruments, which is the focus of much traditional human rights teaching. It also involves the nourishment of the human impulse to engage in the struggle for human rights for all people. Human rights education should be approached in a fashion that includes the analysis, understanding and reading of power relations and social forces so as to enable a struggle to change those power relations that impede the full realization of human rights. This struggle joins that for an equitable division of resources; accessibility to knowledge; control over the preservation of land and indigenous cultures; access to employment and healthy conditions of work; demilitarization of society, elimination of weapons of mass destruction and land mines; reduction of arms transfers and trade; and economic self-determination of peoples, nations, and other groups. In the current international and national political economy, these obstacles are embedded in systemic processes, which human rights education should elucidate, while animating organization of action for the realization of all human rights.
  3. Among these processes, we stress the urgency of globalization of the world economy, which is increasingly sapping efforts to achieve sustainable and people-centred development, to which the international community appears to be committed on paper only. The magnitude of this problem is such that human rights education must address it, because it not only marginalizes vulnerable people in the poor countries of the political "South" and in the industrialized North, but it affects negatively the lives of all but a privileged few. In the former socialist countries of East Central Europe, the rush to embrace the ideology of competition for material accumulation and the abandonment of social programs under pressure from agents of globalization has distorted the popular aspiration to replace structures of arbitrary power of the party over people's lives with a regime of human rights and democratic governance.
  4. The impact of globalization and the conduct of transnational actors and activities of transnational corporations, intergovernmental financial institutions, multilateral development and trade agencies, the communications industry, and the numerous other institutions and networks of trade, aid, investment and operations of the international economy are undeniably felt in the human rights field. For a long time, the conduct of individual states and governments has been the focus of assessments of human rights performance, without questioning human rights behaviour of transnational corporations. Given the increasing dominance of giant corporations in the global political economy (the 500 largest of which control 70% of world trade.), there is a need for transnational conduct to be equally subject to accountability and responsibility in upholding or violating human rights.
  5. Human rights education should create opportunities to raise critical questions on the global and national role of multinational corporations and agencies and international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. For example, when the strategy of structural adjustments to deal with the debt problem of South nations creates more marginalization and injustices for poor majorities, transnational actors should be held responsible for human rights violations. If imposition by the IMF or the World Bank (UN institutions) of structural adjustment includes educational reforms requiring reduction of basic education that prevents the state from complying with its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights instruments to provide free primary education, then those institutions are acting contrary to the UN's human rights standards. Such cases are of immediate relevance to human rights education, as the conduct of the governments and UN agencies concerned would defeat the purpose of the General Assembly resolutions concerning the UN Decade for Human Rights Education. Thus, an element of the pedagogy for human rights education is a critical analysis of the direct and indirect participation of UN and other international agencies and transnational corporations in upholding or violating human rights, drawing insights from the experiences of social movements. When aid and development agencies and the transnational corporations engage in development programmes that undermine the rights of individuals and groups, they should be held answerable and the High Commissioner for Human Rights should monitor their practices and impacts on the realization of the objectives of the Decade.
  6. The right to economic self-determination, as well as economic, and social and cultural rights, like education, health, food and housing, are being rapidly undermined through structural adjustment programmes imposed on the countries of the South and former Communist Party countries by the Bretton Woods institutions. A historically unparalleled conglomerate of interlocking structures of power, comprising transnational corporations, G-7 governments, and international institutions of finance, development and trade, have imposed conditions on economic and social development in the South that lead to massive violations of human rights, exploitation of workers, appropriation and degradation of land and other natural resources, and alienation of citizens from political processes. The result is political and economic control by a small number of financial, trade, technological and intellectual property monopolies and disregard for the right of all individuals and peoples to participatory, human-centred development. As educators, we believe the understanding of these processes and the importance of human rights accountability of all institutions and individuals responsible for globalization are an important part of human rights education.
  7. Denial of economic self-determination and the perpetuation of domination and oppression of women are two other obstacles to human rights that affect thinking about a pedagogy for human rights education. The obstacles in themselves are violations of human rights as well as create conditions for the violation of human rights. Human rights education should serve to expose such obstacles and forces that underlie them, to capacitate the struggle for the full realization of human rights and to denounce impunity of perpetrators of abuses.
  8. Peoples' aspirations for economic justice are part of the struggle for their right "to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development," in accordance with Article 1 of the two International Covenants on Human Rights. Economic self-determination is abused by national security and other forces and co-opted and militarized by military-industrial complexes, often resulting in armed conflicts, in which massive violations of human rights occur with impunity. Another critical dimension of self-determination for human rights education is the struggle of indigenous peoples to develop in accordance with their own values and priorities. The right to self-organization, therefore, is an important part of the right to self-determination. Human rights education should create space for collective assertion of rights struggles at the same time as it crystallizes experiences of peoples struggle in education. Democratization and democratic struggles of the oppressed peoples are co-opted by and distorted by governments of the South and East Central Europe that blindly adhere to the market economy model of development, thus perverting the economic self-determination of their peoples.
  9. The oldest obstacle to all human rights is the patriarchical structuring of the world. Patriarchy perpetuates hierarchical and authoritarian power forces in all kinds of dominations and oppressions. Realization of genuine equality for women and girls and elimination of discrimination and violation of women's human rights will open up new routes towards emancipation and liberation of all individuals and social groups.
  10. State apparatuses, including local non-participatory state structures, are often and correctly identified as significant sources of human rights violations. Conditions for human rights deprivation are also created by non-democratic practices in civil society, including of politicization and militarization of ethnic relationships, which provide conditions for the violation of basic human rights.
  11. We further recognize that the dominant economic and social forces within the civil society are frequently involved in violations of human rights, particularly in relation to women's and children's rights as well as rights of the exploited people with respect to land, forest, water and employment. Such violations in the name of development are carried out, more often than not, with the direct or indirect support of the state apparatus, including its anti-poor judicial system. Such a situation prevails widely not only in the Third World but also in the industrialized West.

Human Rights Education and the Struggle For Social Change

  1. Human rights education, as critical thinking, moral reflection, and meaningful experiences, which contribute to an understanding of power-relations and power-structures, is both a tool for and the process of the struggle for social change and for the implementation of human rights. By enabling learners to examine discourse and power structures critically and creatively, human rights education opens a dynamic and evolving space which can accommodate diverse and changing communities and contexts without, though, imposing a specific mode of action on them. Thus human rights education and the struggle for social change are in a constant dialectical relationship along the path to empowerment and justice. However, this dialectics does not imply and in fact would be self-defeating if it resulted in denial or disregard of the indivisibility, inalienability and universality of human rights, or the failure of states to fulfill their obligations under international human rights law.
  2. Human rights education, by helping learners understand the structure of injustice, enables survival, struggle, and change through a plethora of political, cultural, economic and social modes of responding to situations of denial of human rights. Human rights education facilitates, through laying bare the sources and the limitations of the power forces and energizing personal commitment and social responsibility, alternative representations of cultural products, the writing of non-existent histories and cultures and the re-writing of suppressed ones, alternative political arrangements and organizations, financial substitutions and alternative social arrangements which enable survival under oppression, challenges to abusive power, and the dissemination of education as struggle and struggle as education.

The Learning Process

  1. Pedagogy refers to a planned learning process through which learners develop cognatively, experientially and affectively in response to interaction with facilitators of learning. Such planned interaction between learning facilitators and learners must pursue an explicit purpose, which in the case of human rights education, is awareness of and capacity to act to further human rights aspirations.
  2. Human rights norms themselves, in particular the Universal Declaration, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Vienna Declaration and Plan of Action, define the objective of all education as the full development of the human personality and potential. This objective can best be attained by enabling learners creatively and analytically to construct knowledge and be able to deconstruct fallacious or distorted knowledge concerning their own situation in society and history and reconstructing that knowledge by using critical, reflective, and moral faculties which it is the facilitator's task to assist them in acquiring. Education thus understood is a life-long process in which individuals become at different times and to differing degrees both facilitators of learning and learners. It is, therefore, essential, although frequently neglected, that the learning process respect the historical, social, psychological, ethnic, gender, linguistic and other contexts of the learners.

Pedagogy of Transformation: Towards A Human Rights Culture

  1. We propose a pedagogy of transformation in light of the reality that the magnitude of human rights violations as well as the obstacles to change are so vast that what is required goes beyond the need for amelioration and reform. Such a pedagogy is to be contrasted with a pedagogy of social reproduction in which patterns of hierarchy, abuse and exclusion may be legitimized and preserved.
  2. Formal education (schools, universities, vocational and technical schools, professional schools, etc.) and other learning environments can be and sometimes are places where faculty, students and staff have the opportunity to search for meaning, to pursue the search for justice and to develop their unique beings in an atmosphere of safety, caring, and compassion. We strongly believe that students who are fully engaged in such an educational process are much more likely to challenge social and cultural domination. Vested interests, persistent habits, and bureaucratic can be obstacles to the incorporation of a human rights pedagogy into formal education.
  3. The pedagogy required for such a process will undoubtedly involve a wide variety of methods and approaches that should reflect and be guided by the principles that are basic to in the human rights movement. These principles include:
  4. In this connection, it is important to reaffirm the rights and responsibilities of individual teachers to participate in professional decisions on such matters as the development of curriculum materials and instructional approaches. In addition, teachers have the responsibility to relate to students in a manner consistent with human rights principles. Valuable guidance regarding the human rights that must be respected in teacher-pupil relations may be found in the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, which includes the child's rights to dignity, security, participation, identity, freedom of thought, access to information, and privacy. Full respect for these rights would transform most learning environments and foster human rights education.
  5. The content of human rights education necessarily varies with the learning environment. Among the elements that are frequently pertinent are the following: the historical development of human rights and a critical understanding of the history of the struggle for human rights with particular emphasis on successful models; the use and abuse of international and national forces; the nature and extent of human rights violations, locally, regionally, nationally, as well as in the schools; the international instruments protecting human rights such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; the agencies and institutions of remediation; as well as a critical understanding of related concepts such as justice, freedom, democracy and peace and the experiences with the realities of human rights concerns of students and others. The UN definition correctly states, that "human rights education should involve more than the provision of information and should constitute a comprehensive life-long process by which people at all levels in development and in all strata of society learn respect for the dignity of others and the means and methods of ensuring that respect in all societies," (Resolution 49/184 of 23 December 1994 proclaiming the Decade). This definition implies knowledge of remedies provided in the national and international legal and political institutions as well as forms of action when those institutions fail to provide such remedies.
  6. In addition to appropriate knowledge and understanding, human rights education operating within a context of the affirmation of the value of human life and dignity, involves developing the capacity to care and be compassionate; to commit to the struggle for human rights and to understanding the role non-violent civil disobedience has played in this struggle; to exercise personal responsibility and human agency; to develop the imagination and creativity necessary to envision and create a just and caring community; to develop the critical consciousness necessary to sustain rational judgment; the skills of self-reflection and personal transformation; the courage and strength necessary to sustain the struggle.
  7. With respect to popular education and out-of-school youth, pedagogies of transformation derived from popular struggle are an important ingredient in human rights education. As we seek to bring human rights education to the world's youth, we are all mindful that such education must honor their experiences, reflect their concerns and be relevant to youth culture. The great numbers of the world's youth to whom formal schooling is not available should have the opportunity to engage in human rights education in other learning environments.
  8. Regarding teacher education, teachers, facilitators, organizers and trainers should demonstrate, in their personal behaviours and teaching methods, respect for the dignity of learners with varying capacities. Those who initiate and guide learning processes based upon a pedagogy of transformation will require capacities to face a range of challenges imposed by the democratization of the teaching/learning process. Thus, we see the need for major and radical changes in the preparation of teachers and facilitators and those who are responsible for coordinating human rights education.
  9. Where women are excluded from formal education and production of knowledge, human rights education require a two-fold strategy: first, women and girls should be allowed equal access to formal education, including affirmative modes of overcoming traditional patterns of exclusion. Second, special opportunities should be encouraged to develop alternative modes of learning and specific forms of women's human rights education, recognizing women's production of knowledge. In addition, human rights education should encourage positive actions to achieve equality and representation of women in society and professions, particularly to increase their access to positions of power and responsibility in fields traditionally dominated by men. Such measures should prevail until substantial equality in sharing power and influence is achieved.
  10. Universities often open extraordinary opportunities for social mobility. They also train elites to join the power structure in government and business by imparting privileged knowledge and imbedding networks of collaboration that reinforce structures of domination. At the same time, universities that respect academic freedom and promote independent research are critically important places where alternative modes of analysis, theorizing, and action can be developed. Universities are, therefore, valuable locations for developing pedagogies of human rights education and training students to engage in professional human rights work. One of the tasks of human rights education is to expand these opportunities.
  11. Vocational and technical education offer a special occasion to develop pedagogies that relate the skills of the workplace which students attending such institutions acquire to the role of workers in the political economy and the human rights struggles of that context. Similarly, professional schools require specific pedagogies aimed at engaging future lawyers, health and medical professionals, journalists, architects, administrators, military personnel and others in a reflection on the human rights dimensions of their professional field and on the application of their professional skills to the tasks of the human rights struggle.
  12. The relation between school and community are vital dimensions of human rights education directed towards the transformation of societies. The schools and all learning agents and sites should have close and integrated relationships with their respective communities.

Learning Environments and Innovative Methodologies

  1. In order to achieve the pedagogy of transformation described above, educators and other facilitators of learning need to develop and use innovative methodologies adopted to a wide range of learning environments. By learning environments, we understand all places where people interact in a way in which there is a potential for learning through exchange, sharing of ideas, reception of information, contact and communication. We may consider these as synergistic communities, i.e., where the more interaction occurs, the more viable it becomes. These places and spaces may be institutionalized for the explicit and permanent purpose of education (formal), or for other purposes and used incidentally or provisionally for education (informal), or not institutionalized at all (nonformal). These environments may also be the occurrence of a spontaneous event. The potential of these sites is variable, based on culture, socio economic conditions, etc. These sites may even come into conflict and contradiction. The following is a suggested and open list of learning environments where specific pedagogies for human rights education have been or might be developed:
  2. International instruments of human rights law must be translated into daily language and reality through culturally appropriate and economically viable expressions. Among the means of achieving this result are:
  3. The media and electronic communication, such as the Internet, can be powerful tools of human rights education, if developed to achieve the learning goals set out above. Human rights educators should be at the forefront of the application of communications technology to positive social purposes. They also need to address the commodification of culture through the overwhelming presence of media images that often marginalize opportunities for human rights learning. Learners, especially children, are bombarded by advertising, infotainment, edutainment, government propaganda, commodification of women's bodies (including their objectification through pornography), indoctrination by interest groups or sects, and other forms of mass communication that denigrate cultural values, especially of indigenous and minority groups, and transmit stereotypes and prejudice, especially of women, or glorify consumerism to the detriment of the values of human rights. Facilitators of learning, therefore, need to make a critical understanding of such mediatized images part of human rights education.
  4. Assessment has historically been used in traditional education as a mechanism of reward and punishment which can co-opt the independent thinking of the learners and has thus been a limitation on authentic and meaningful learning. The pedagogy of human rights education proposes that assessment be replaced by a process of self and co-operative evaluation as a means of constructing and deconstructing knowledge gained from various sources including experience and cooperation as key in the development of ethical behaviour which will lead into action.

Towards a Pedagogy of Human Rights Education For The Third Millennium

  1. Our deliberations are part of an on-going process that requires the input of people engaged in diverse learning experiences and struggles against the forces that deny human rights to peoples around the world. We, therefore, request PDHRE to distribute this document to organizations and movements worldwide and to compile the results of this broader consultation in a text than can be disseminated in the context of the celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998. In that sense, this statement is a work in progress, directed towards the generalization of human rights education by the end of the UN Decade, which corresponds with the opening years of the third millennium.