Human Rights Education:
The Promise of the Third Millenium?

By Upendra Baxi

A. An Age of Rights?
B. The Universal Declaration and Human Rights Education
C. The 1974 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning Human Rights Education
D. The 1993 UNESCO Montreal Declaration on Human Rights Education
E. Human Rights Education in the Vienna Declaration
F. The Draft Plan of Action for the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education: 1995-2005
G. Critiques of Human Rights as Sites of Resistance to Human Rights Education
H. The Tasks Ahead
I. The Way to Human Rights Education



The better part of the twentieth century is characterized by a unique innovation: the proliferation of the endless normativity of human rights standards, especially in the discursive praxis of the United Nations. One may say, despite the reality of massive and monumental violations, that ours is an Age of Rights. No preceding century of human history has been privileged to witness such a range of rights-enunciations as ours. Never, too, have the languages of rights thus far replaced all other moral languages. As the Secretary General observed at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in June 1993, human rights constitute a "common language of humanity." Further, even as the alleged end of ideology is being proclaimed worldwide, a human rights sociolect emerges as the only universalistic ideology-in-the-making, enabling both legitimation and delegitimation of power and critiques of anticipations of human futures.

All these critical developments have led to continuing confrontation between emergent cultures of rights and entrenched cultures of power. Never has been this dialectic between rights and power been so vividly persistent and poignant as in the last seven decades of the twentieth century.

Human rights cultures, however, have long been in the making by the praxis of victims of violations, regardless of the mode of production of human rights standards and instruments. The single most critical source of human rights is the consciousness of peoples of the world who have waged the most persistent struggles for decolonization and self-determination, against racial discrimination, gender-based aggression and discrimination, denial of access to basic minimum needs, environmental degradation and destruction, systematic 'benign neglect' of the disarticulated, disadvantaged and dispossessed (including the indigenous peoples of the Earth). Clearly, Human Rights Education (HRE) must begin by a commissioning of a world history of people's struggles for rights and against injustice and tyranny. The emergence of more contemporary concerns with rights-enunciation cannot be understood without a history of everyday moral heroism of diverse peoples asserting the most basic of all basic rights: namely, the Right to be Human, and to remain Human.(1)

Nor should the contemporary mode of production of human rights and fundamental freedoms be considered in isolation from the history of these struggles. No doubt, the work of the United Nations in promotion and protection of human rights provides its own saga of the triumph of collective human/social imagination. But the practices of production of truths of human rights by governments, diplomats, statespersons have always been informed and formed by an ever increasing, and persistent, human striving to make state more ethical, governance more just, and power more accountable.

One may narrate histories of the Age of Rights from the perspective of myriad peoples' struggles [attending closely to a large number of narrative voices and to micropolitics ultimately shaping the larger stories of politics of rights and liberation] or other vantage point which allows appropriation of narrative voice to national actors [parties, leaders, constitution-makers, judicial actors and the semi-autonomous fields of rights-enunciation within the United Nations system and culture].

The choice of narrative paths would offer distinctive starting points for, and future impacts of, historiographies of human rights movements may have an enduring influence on the movement for HRE in terms of scope, objectives, principles, missions, pedagogies, constitutional and management (monitoring) strategies. On the eve of launching of the U.N. HRE Decade, serious engagement with historiographies of human rights movements may be deferred only at the cost of our common future.

The received wisdom on human rights promotion and protection has been under the signature of crises for a considerable period, and at least for the last two decades, from both the standpoints. Rights discourse still remains legible as a site of ever-potent regime of corpus of restraints on the power of the post-modern Leviathan State. At the same time, increasingly, a great discovery of the Age of Rights is that civil society, the ensemble of relatively state-free spaces (actors, agencies and institutions), provides equally, and often enough, more pervasively fertile sites of violations. Thus, a common realization is dawning in human rights movements. On the one hand, the need for limiting the overweening power of state operators and hegemonies remains imperative. On the other hand, state action and intervention seems to offer the most reassuring promise of providing chemotherapy to the cancerous growth of culturally rooted, and economically 'derivable,' forms of violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Thus arises the great dilemma of the Age of Rights: the rights discourse must both, and in a just and effective measure, simultaneously disempower as well as empower the state. This new dialectic of simultaneous disempowerment and re-empowerment of the state (with post-modernist identity and even destiny) must be addressed, seriously, in fashioning programmes and strategies for HRE.

Not to be ignored, even momentarily, are the aspects of technopolitics: the processes of production of politics by technologies of the present and future, based on an intertwining of cybernetic and biotechnology revolutions. Technopolitics breeds techno-narcissism(2): both these tend to deconstruct and reconstruct human and cultural identities, primarily by breeding common cultures of desires which only serve the market and economy, power and profit.(3) Technopolitics also has the power of shaping images of human emancipation. For example, in a world where genetically mutated new forms of life are open to patenting (private corporate appropriation), or where species-patenting is on the threshold of recognition as a private (corporate) right in a post-Dunkel world, notions of the autonomy, privacy, uniqueness of individual selfhood, and group (collective) rights live (to invoke Soren Kierkegaard) in "fear and trembling." Similar crises are posed by mass media, through satellite communication and cable diffusion, to rights and freedoms of plurality and diversity. A new "libidinal economy" (to borrow the title of a book by the postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard) is in the process of making in these halcyon days of "globalization" of the world. New "fundamentalisms" (4) emerge in this zodiac as last-ditch battles against the homogenization of human futures; neither, clearly, augers well for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The irony, in this contemporary world-formation, of HRE endeavors is ineluctable. Globalization, which periclitates human rights and fundamental freedoms, is the crossroad on which HRE is to have its birth and being. The HRE, in this conjuncture, has the mission of redemption of humane, self-forming (both individual and collective) praxis in a world which is supposed, and even required, to celebrate, with Francis Fukuyama, the "end of history" and the advent of the "Last Man." (5)

I revisit these themes towards conclusion, after a rapid tour de horizon of the United Nations biography of HRE.


The origins of notions of HRE, even as itself constituting a human right, can be traced to the text of the germinal Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Preamble stresses the central importance of a "common understanding" of human rights and fundamental freedoms to the achievement of "freedom, justice and peace in the world." It, in the operative part, proclaims that a "common standard of achievement" of these values, nationally and globally, requires, inter alia, that every individual and organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall try by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms ... "Education" in human rights is thus the individual and collective duty of all, nationally, regionally and globally.

Read in the context of the Preamble, Article 26 of the Declaration affirming everyone's right to education must, of course, include HRE as a human right in itself. Article 26 conceptualizes education not merely in terms of development of individual personality or even in terms of good citizenship of a nation-state. Education has a global orientation of producing true citizens of the world, imbued with civic virtues of respect for pluralism, peace, dignity and rights. Nor is education, necessarily, all about rights. Article 29 of the Declaration categorically declares that "free and full development" of human personality also entails fulfillment of duties to the community. Education, including HRE, is a right indeed; but that right is not an end in itself. It is a means to other ends, enumerated above, whose pursuit in totality would contribute to the attainment of "freedom, justice and peace in the world."

The Preamble gives a conscientious raison d être for HRE as well as a pragmatic justification. The former asserts that:

disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want which has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

The pragmatic justification for HRE is that it is

essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.

The reference to the "highest aspiration of common people" and outraging of the "conscience of the mankind" indicates that human rights and fundamental freedoms are common properties of human conscience and common moral sentiment. Barbarous practices of power are recognizable and recognized, regardless of whether politicians, statespersons, and jurists, and international organizations have produced human rights enunciations commensurate with the power of politics to produce a series of contingent, but monumental, evils. The experience of outrage at flagrant and massive violations antedates rights-enunciations, and survives their well-manicured formulations. The Declaration conceives thus human rights and fundamental freedoms as a domain of conscience collective (almost in the sense in which Emile Durkheim so imaginatively sculpted that notion to understand and analyze social solidarities). HRE strategies have to acknowledge, and build upon, this common human solidarity to promote rights education.

The pragmatic justification of the Declaration is no less striking. Tyranny, defined as an absence of human rights protection by the rule of law institutions and structures, signifies absence or annihilation of human rights cultures, both in civil society and the State. Such a situation leads to 'rebellion,' breakdown of social order, civil strife and repression, disrupting just peace not at a national level but also regionally or globally. HRE as a strategic instrumentality for protection of peace, in all dimensions and levels was presciently recognized by the authors of the Universal Declaration. Any genesis amnesia on this score will impoverish our enterprise.


The 1974 Recommendation both enlarges and limits notions of HRE. It enlarges the

notion of 'education' as implying "the entire process of social life" affecting "the whole of their personal capacities, attitudes, aptitudes and knowledge." [Article 1(a)]

And the aims of HRE are to promote "international understanding," "cooperation" and "peace" considered as "an indivisible whole" uniting concerns of friendly relations between peoples and states" and of "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." This unity configurates in the Recommendation as "international education."

This welcome expansion of "education" is, however, accompanied by contraction of HRE itself! Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms are only those defined in the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration and the two International Covenants. Clearly, in the United Nations tradition extends much further. (6) Of necessity, the present efforts of developing HRE must include a larger number of HRE and related enunciations and instruments.

HRE emerges in the Recommendation "international education," entailing

  1. "intellectual and emotional development;" "a sense of responsibility and of solidarity with less privileged groups" such that results in "observance of principles of equality in everyday conduct" [Article 5]
  2. a culture of "inadmissibility of recourse to war" and understanding of responsibility to strengthen world peace [Article 6]
  3. the incompatibility of "the true interests of people" and with interests of "monopolistic groups holding economic and political power, which practice exploitation and ferment wars" [Article15]
  4. "inter-cultural understanding" [Article 17]
  5. meaningful opportunities for "active civic training," enabling cooperative endeavor in "the work of public institutions" imparting competence to political participation [Article 13]
  6. capabilities to eradicate "conditions which perpetuate major problems affecting human survival and well-being" and which enhance "international cooperation" to this end [Article 18]

In may respects, the Recommendation charts out the itinerary of HRE well beyond the Universal Declaration. The emphases, if not shifts, in the directions of HRE, are of considerable pertinence to our re-imagining HRE. The specificity of clusters of concern and capabilities, purposes and promises, symbolized by the Recommendation stress on "appropriate ... emotional development" (without which solidarities remain incoherently emergent), "inter-cultural understanding" (without which rights enunciations can be, and have been, unfairly castigated as Eurocentric in their origins and functions) and radical quest for egalitarianism in everyday life, both nationally and globally, ought not (in my belief) be overlooked in future revitalization of notions of HRE, in a post-cold war era.


Building upon the 1974 Recommendation (and a subsequent set of associated enunciations since 1974 (7)) the UNESCO World Plan of Action on Education for Human Rights and Democracy adopted by the International Congress (Montreal, Canada: March 8-11, 1993) unfolds, on the eve of Vienna Conference on Human Rights, many an inaugural theme. Before commenting on the 'daring' of the Montreal Declaration some of its inaugural propositions must be noted.

First, the Montreal Plan explicitly addresses HRE to the victims of human rights violations, as well as the defenders of 'democracy'. Second, while reiterating the notion of education as a lifelong process of learning, the Montreal Plan inaugurates the notion of HRE "in difficult situations." Obviously, state failures (an amalgam always of national and global forces) present, increasingly, a testing time for the run-of-the-mill notions of HRE. Third, the Montreal Plan anchors HRE in the harbor of liberal democracy. It declares that all education, especially HRE, should "promote societal transformation based upon human rights and democracy." Fourth, HRE should itself be "participatory and operational, creative, innovative and empowering at all levels of civil society." Fifth, HRE has prophylactic role and function; HRE must evolve "special and anticipatory strategies aimed at preventing the outbreak of violent conflicts and related human rights violations." Sixth, the "key challenge of the future" confronting HRE is how to "enhance the universality of human rights by rooting these rights in different cultural traditions." Seventh, this endeavor of cultural rooting (implantation) must recognize that "effective exercise of human rights is also contingent upon the responsibility by individuals towards the community." Eighth, the Montreal Plan offers at least three criteria by which 'success' of any HRE mission may be evaluated. A HRE mission is successful when it

The Montreal Plan, is of course, justified in linking strongly human rights and democracy. But it needs to be supplemented by notions of 'historic' time. The actually existing liberal democracies in the North emerged out of at least centuries of histories of people's struggles with the state and within civil societies. To imagine that HRE strategies in themselves will somehow accelerate historic time for the rest of the world is to arrest meaningful global movement, and efflorescence, of the HRE.

It needs to be at least acknowledged that the erstwhile colonial powers aborted conditions of political development and maturation in most parts of the world. It also needs to be acknowledged further that practices of power during the long dark night of the 'cold war' did not enable the erstwhile colonial powers and their allies, to contribute to the decolonized nations' capabilities to "nurture democratic values, sustain impulses for democratization" or to promote "peaceful" democratization of whole civil societies. Nor is the quest to locate, in the post-cold war era, the Other (the Enemy) of a solitary superpower necessarily conducive to the rapid evolution of human rights cultures across the world.

Democracies are processes, never fully formed historic products. Or to put it in a language, with which at least professional philosophers will feel at home, democracy is a process of Becoming, not of Being. And from this standpoint, the dilemmas of sustainable democracy, while more acute in the South, are also awesomely present in the North as well. Read thus, the Montreal Plan addresses HRE, both in guiding principles and in strategies of action, to the critical tasks of democratizing and re-democratizing civil society and state formation, everywhere in the world.

The Montreal Plan, however, moves close to heart of contemporary darkness when it refocuses HRE to its inaugural task of transforming civil society. This task is urgent, and compelling, both for the South as well as North, especially in the North where civil societies while developing and nurturing impassioned cultures of human rights at home are indifferent to how their elected representatives may often play God abroad, especially in the South.

Finally, the Montreal Plan's teleology of HRE raises an important question concerning HRE: should HRE be regarded as an end in itself or a means to some designated end? On possible answers to this question will depend the future legitimation, organization, accountability, autonomy, pedagogies and performance of HRE.

The choice is between saying that we ought to pursue HRE in itself as human right to better achieve all other human rights and fundamental freedoms or that we ought to promote HRE for ends like "good governance," "sustainable development," "economic progress," "democracy" and "transformation of civil societies." And the choice is critical, in the sense of the nature of dispensability or expendability of HRE. If we were to regard HRE as a means for "economic" development in societies exposed to structural adjustment programs, for example, only market-friendly rights will be germane to HRE endeavor; similarly, cultures which regard patriarchy as 'divinely' ordained may not consider a regendering of human rights cultures as critical to many of the 'ends' described above.

The choice has to be clearly made. I believe HRE is important because it is an end in itself. It is conceivable and a matter of not just ethical but also political judgment that as and when HRE mission succeeds it may ill-serve other postulated goals and ends. This is so because as Roberto M. Unger has reminded us, rights typically have in history a destabilizing function, a "context smashing" tendency. (8) Neither of these features necessarily go so far as to question the integrity or rationale of the nation-state itself but both acutely interrogate all the processes of power and authority within state and civil society. HRE as an end itself seeks to reinforce the processes of empowerment of every human being in everyday life to experience freedom and solidarity, not fractured by grids of power and domination by the civil society and state. Mohandas Gandhi used to say that swarai (independence, that is just self-rule) brings exercise of freedom in non-threatening ways to the Other. The ability to perceive such freedom as not threatening all that is good, true and beautiful in human achievement is to my mind the summum bonum that HRE promises us.


Celebrating both, in its germinal preambulatory formulation, "the spirit of the age" and "the realities of our time," the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights marks yet another milestone in human rights lexicon, theory and activism.(9) Section D, Part II of the Declaration, and Paragraphs 33, 36 Part I, focus on HRE. The Vienna Declaration, in brief, reiterates the expanded notion of 'education' first articulated in the 1974 UNESCO Recommendation, extends that Recommendation, making education, and HRE, to go beyond select bodies of human rights discourse to inclusion of "peace, democracy, development and social justice", innovates HRE as a gender specific mission, stressing the 'human rights needs of women"; reconstructs the enterprise of HRE to make it inclusively communitarian; and focuses HRE programs and strategies on special state agencies and agents.

Of the Vienna goals and strategies, the most excitingly innovative dimension is, of course, the reference to "human rights needs of women." Inviting, inaugurally, the suspension of the dichotomy between 'needs' and 'rights'.

The conception of 'human rights needs' enwombed within the motto "Women's Rights are Human Rights," indicates the ongoing process, in contemporary rights discourse, transmuting needs into rights. But equally importantly, for HRE pedagogies and strategies, identification of human rights needs must, minimally, include: access to information, access to opportunities for the exercise of rights, access to modalities and instrumentalities in the identification of violations of human rights and the needs to access to public discourse which may contest state/society assertions that either no right exists or if it does no violation can be said to have occurred.

This listing of human rights needs can, and must, be expanded with care, the implication being that HRE can never be a static body of given knowledges of rights-enunciations but must forever remain a dynamic engagement with these knowledges. In this sense, HRE will be future-oriented as well.


The Draft Plan of Action (hereafter referred to as the "Draft"), naturally, builds upon the lineage of HRE thus far canvassed. But it also marks advances, the most critical being the notion that HRE is a unique strategy for the "building of a universal culture of human rights" through the "imparting of knowledges, skills and molding of attitudes." And the comprehensiveness of the conception of HRE is welcome as it goes beyond the 1974 Recommendation to include, besides the foundational texts, almost all major human rights enunciations. (10) The five normative bases of HRE(11) continue to reflect the emergent consensus about its goals.

The notion of 'culture' however seems to focus HRE on intellectual development of knowledges, skills and attitudes. "Cultures" include these but of course encompass much more. "Values" constitute a salient part of cultures. But equally important are sensibilities which make cultures possible and enduring. Sensibility signified, in lamented Raymond Williams terms, a 'structure of feeling' and what, in a different context, the 1974 Recommendation named "appropriate ... emotional development." An overly rationalistic approach to HRE may defeat the very objectives enshrined in the Draft Plan.

The General Guiding Principles of the Draft (Part Two) are, indeed, noteworthy. First, HRE should create "broadest possible awareness and understanding of all the norms, concepts and values" of the foundational texts as well as all other relevant international human rights instruments. Put another way, HRE is not directed merely to literacy concerning human rights texts; their intertextuality also has to be learned and imparted (that is, their cross-connections, reciprocal supplementation - their hermeneutical totality). The ideology-in-the-making of human rights ("all the norms, concepts and values") becomes in the Draft the repertoire of HRE. This is further reinforced by the reference to "universality" and "interdependence of all rights."

Second, HRE has to move from the "universal" to the particular, from abstract to the concrete, from the global to the local. Effective HRE "shall be shaped in such a way as to be relevant to the daily lives of the learners," and shall "seek to engage learners in a dialogue about the ways and means of transforming human rights from the expression of abstract norms to the reality of their social, economic, cultural and political conditions." [Paragraph 4] This critical formulation summons HRE praxis to tasks of everyday relevance, in the micropolitical, microsocial contexts. It formulates the imagination of HRE as dialogical.) Dialogue, definition, can occur under conditions of discursive dignity and equality. And dialogical HRE strategies conflate, creatively, the distinction between the 'learner' and the 'learned.' Humility is, of course, the hallmark of learning. And dialogical HRE interaction is, obviously, a confrontation between the 'pre-given' ("social, economic, cultural and political conditions") and the future histories-in-the-making.

Third, the Guiding Principles envisage participatory HRE praxis as entailing "equal participation of women and men of all age groups and all sectors of society both in formal learning ... and non-formal learning through institutions of civil society, the family and the mass media." [Paragraph 3] HRE endeavors ought thus to cut across hierarchies of formal/informal education systems, gender, age and reach out to realms other than state power.

Fourth, the Draft marks a community of concern between "democracy, development and human rights" (their "mutually reinforcing nature"). Accordingly, it reiterates a prime function of HRE to seek to further effective democratic participation in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres and shall be utilized as a means of promoting economic and social progress and people-centered sustainable development.

This remarkably imaginative formulation offers to HRE missionaries an embarrassment de riches. HRE strategies have to foster that order of participation which promotes both 'economic and social progress' and 'people-centered development.' In a sense, this formulation leads us back to an equally remarkable enunciation in Article 18 of the 1974 UNESCO Recommendation which, rightly insists that all education, including HRE, should address the major problems of mankind, especially "the eradication of conditions which perpetuate" attacks on human survival and well-being, "inequality", "injustice". HRE, like all education, must ineluctably be "multi-disciplinary," as well as global, regional, national and local all at the same time. And at all levels of learning.


Recognition of critiques of human rights enunciations is essential to the HRE mission of developing a "universal culture of human rights." There exists in the North a rights-weariness and in the South a rights-wariness. Neither can be wished away; each has to be grasped in its historicity and lessons learnt through dialogical encounters. Knight-errantary of human rights and HRE can only lead to a Quixotic enchantment, leaving the world untransformed at its core.

The rights-weariness is partly a response to the human rights enunciation explosion. Ethical theorists question the emergent hegemonies of rights languages, displacing all other moral languages (of virtue, of duty, of responsibility, and of communitarianism). Pragmatists scoff at the Quixotic character of many a human rights formulation, which seem to represent to them not a Utopia but a dystopia. Rights-weariness is an ethical stance which doubts whether the liberal traditions of individual rights can be the privileged bearers of human transformation, especially when the ideality of rights stands squandered by an excess of rights-talk. (12)

Rights-wariness regards it a duty to raise uncharitable questions concerning the career and future of human rights promotion and protection in the present mold. The critics perceive an immense duality, and even duplicity, in the endless propagation of human rights languages, even to the point of identifying those as "human rights colonialism." Wariness about rights may best be captured by the following (perhaps too simplistic) formulations:

  1. The discourse of human rights ought to be pluralistic according equal dignity to all traditions of the world; by contrast, it is hegemonically 'western'
  2. The classical liberal tradition of rights and justice carries the legacy of the original sin: these traditions are at their best and brightest in justifying/recycling colonialism/imperialism, both in 'classical' and contemporary incarnations
  3. Human rights agendum offer pathways, in different radical idioms, of the White Man's Burden; in other words, it masks the ends of power and domination (political and economic) by the North
  4. The North is unable, despite its proud boast, to make the world safe for democracy and rights and unwilling to create conditions within its own jurisdiction to eliminate practices and circumstances which encourage massive and flagrant violation of human rights
  5. This stands demonstrated (even outside the arena of foreign policy and the making of wars) in the North's pronounced inability and unwillingness to subject its own economic agents to a common human standard of regulation of risk and liability for injury (whether signified by Bhopal, or dumping of toxic wastes, or of injurious drugs in overseas markets proscribed at home, or gender-aggressive contraceptive devices. Implicit in policies of export of hazardous processes and products is a double standard concerning the value of human life)
  6. The North has betrayed commitments, contained in salient United Nations Declarations, which provided for a global structural adjustment program for promotion and protection of human rights, especially for South. Some of these Declarations contained as well duties of reparation for massive and sustained violations of rights of colonized peoples and nations, e.g., Social Progress and Development (1969) pledging 1% of GNP of North for aid to South and just, non-discriminatory patterns of trade, commerce and intercourse between the North and the South; eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition (1974); Use of Scientific and Technological Progress in the Interest of Peace and Mankind (1975); and the Right to Development (1986)
  7. Human rights diplomacy of the North has been complicit, during and even after the 'Cold War', with the worst violations of human rights in the nation-states of the South
  8. The classical model of human rights spread on ideology of possessive market individualism where human rights become rights of homo economicus or homo consumeris devoid of any communitarian responsibilities and fidelity to age-old spiritual heritage, transcending both the market and the state
  9. The cosmologies of human rights discourse are based on variants of civic religion and secular nationalism, not cognizant at all of potential of divergent religious, cultural, and inter-faith traditions for promotion of fraternity, solidarity, dignity, justice and rights.

In all these genres of critiques lies an impulse for rethinking human rights. They acknowledge, indeed, that some human rights and fundamental freedoms are universal and indivisible but interrogate, for example, preferred hierarchies of rights, extolling civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural rights.

Clearly, no amount of incantation of the mantra of 'human rights culture' is going to succeed in the face of these diverse critiques. Nor would it do, even as a gesture, to deny elements of domination or hegemony or to gainsay the ascendancy of one variant of liberal human rights paradigm in most of the contemporary human rights formulations. It would also constitute a serious misrecognition of these genres of critiques to say that all these, put together, constitute merely self-serving resistance to human rights cultures.


Human rights education begins to gather a global momentum precisely at a historical conjuncture when fantastically new forces of production (especially digitalization and biotechnology) have begun fostering new international division of labor through the rolled-up processes of globalization. If the ideological superstructures are varieties of postmodernist ethics (including rights-weariness), the realpolitik of the emergent world is increasingly rights-wary. For once, the discourse is explicit: human rights are instrumentalities of social development, which could best take place through "free trade" whose logic, in turn, is at odds with so many proclamations of human rights! The discursive twist explicitly since the United Nations summit on social development is clearly in the direction of a market-friendly (or specifically trade-related) human rights paradigm. (13)

To be sure, amidst all these transformations, the core objectives of HRE remain, more or less, constant in the sense that:

These objectives have to be attained in a world dizzy with acceleration of history. The difficulties of HRE are well worth pondering in this context, as a prelude to the identification of the tasks ahead.

No matter how 'education' is conceived (formal/informal/adult, continuing, extension education) human rights education has necessarily to relate to and deal with educational formations already in place everywhere: it has to engage itself with

HRE conceived as 'education' needs to find an exponential entry point at each one of these, and related, levels. State constitutional policies, as in the Philippines for example, can do a great deal to facilitate privileged space for human rights education. (14) But when these are unavailable, as is mostly the case (and poignantly in the much-developed world, though clearly not only there), HRE initiatives will have to emerge at the 'world-system' level. At this level, the required range of inter-agency collaboration within the United Nations system is simply incredible. Clearly, the Human Rights Commissioner and the Centre for Human Rights will need to interact in a sustained manner, for example, with the ILO, UNESCO, ICJ (the World Court whose jurisprudence is relevant to HRE), UNEF, IAEC, UNFP, UNICEF, various treaty bodies (but especially CEDAW), the Committee on Crime Prevention and Treatment of Offenders, the Commission on Sustainable Development, the World Intellectual Property Organization. With the best of political will, such inter-agency collaboration is hard to initiate or sustain. It is difficult to imagine that the Human Rights Commissioner or the Centre will engage in such an enterprise, without the constant push and prod by HRE NGOs and movements. In turn the HRE groups will themselves need to activate and network educational NGOs. The tasks overall, are indeed of a forbidding magnitude. (15) And if the history of HRE initiatives in the U.N. system is any guide, it would be surprising if anyone attempted such a task.

Leaving the United Nations system in its own orbit to perform its wonders may be a comforting thought to many a HRE activist, despite the fact that much social and human rights activism is being heavily coopted for weal or woe by that very system. Activists thus inclined, for example, did not wait for the Jomytien Declaration and Program of Action on Education for All or the Covenant on the Rights of the Child (16) to embark on a whole range of literacy programs; nor do they await significant state action to pursue their difficult tasks. Indeed, some activists go so far as to problematize the role of international policies and programs and are critical of their United Nations-struck sisters.

Regardless of all this, independent peoples' movements for literacy, numeracy, science education go beyond critiques of educational formations to an imagination of social struggles which would accomplish conquest of local spaces, in ways which meaningfully empower human beings to delink their destiny from the state and the economy, and forces and relations of 'globalization.' On this vision, "education" is such a full development of human personality as to endow human beings with the power to resist the colonization of the mind by state, civil society, intergovernmental regimes and multinationals. Education (to appropriate Giles Deluze's thought in a different context) will signify those processes which prevent the State from thinking through our heads! In this image, HRE will be a distinctly autonomous, decolonizing, deglobalizing, heretical project in which the very act of learning will be simultaneously an act of insurrection aiming at the dissipation of imposed knowledges.(17)

Clearly, we arrive at radically different visions of education, but especially HRE. Both are relevant but each defines the movement for HRE very differently, in its own image. In the dialectical development of projects thus envisioned lies, I believe, the redemptive potential of human rights education. At the same time, the challenges to both remain common and to these I now turn.

(a) Human Rights-Weariness and Human Rights-Wariness

Both these forms of thought as action not merely challenge the prospect of HRE but the foundations of human rights notions as such, as a universal ideology-in-the-making. Clearly, a major task of HRE, in either vision, is to show as against prevalent moral philosophies, that

Philosophic cottage industries, especially in the First World, have indeed made each one of these propositions deeply problematic. (18) HRE has to invade these comfortable discursive abodes which radiate an enormous amount of human rights cynicism, for good and bad reasons.

Similarly, human rights education ought to give salience to propositions (d) to (g) of the rights-wariness critique. There is absolutely no question that the North's human rights diplomacy and advocacy is geared more to the exigencies of realpolitik than to a co-equal protection and promotion of human rights throughout the world, and especially the South. But human rights education movement will need to contest some other parts of the critique and maintain that

In other words, human rights enunciations and movements, in their totality, do not endanger 'just' communities. Such communities, by definition, achieve that level of just arrangements and distribution of goods (including dignity and esteem) as to comport with, or even exceed, the justice-potential of human rights. 'Just' communities do not allow some human beings to treat others as mere receptacles of domination or sites of subjection; that is precisely the ethics of human rights enunciation and movement. The latter, indeed, interrogate and endanger those societal and state practices which deny human dignity and autonomy. The first task of human rights education, therefore, is to articulate a vision of justice -- of a just civil society, a just state -- embedded in the totality of authoritative human rights enunciations. Such an articulation will insist that conditions and circumstances of pluralism and diversity in culture and religion may not be at odds with notions of justice embedded in human rights.

The tasks of HRE consist in addressing difficult dilemmas of communitarianism and libertarianism, excesses of either can make problematic the very notion of human rights in 'real' as well as 'imagined' communities around the world. (19)

(b) The Material Forces of Production

Science and technology, as Karl Marx reiterated long ago, can be constructed as material forces of production. The post-industrial mode of production rests upon fantastic developments of new productive forces. Among these are: technologies underlying the weapons of mass destruction, space technologies, biotechnology, digitalization, 'civilian' nuclear power, biomedical technologies. Productive forces are inherently amoral. The overall impact of these developments is to make human rights paradigms problematic, and also to some extent obsolete. The following enable a glimpse into the emerging impact:

This list could be refined as well as expanded. But it should be sufficient to illustrate that science and technology, as forces of production, are human-rights visually handicapped. In their relentless march, they acknowledge no obscenities of violation of human rights, the Bhopal catastrophe being an archetype. The forces of production can only cognize human rights appropriate to the mode of production and no other. (26) Thus, the only human rights which will be, under this mode, be universally recognized are market-friendly human rights. The rest would sought to be consigned to the dustheap of history. The struggle of HRE would then be the struggle from this dustheap!

(c) The Social Relations of Production

'Globalization' is a complex phrase commonly used to summate the relations of production in a post-industrial mode. A brief review of various dimensions of globalization is necessary if only to indicate the hard tasks awaiting human rights education.

First, globalization theorists posit, in different ways, the emergence of a new international division of labor. This division is marked by impacts of trade and investment patterns. Even while acknowledging some transformations in the 'developing' countries economies, (27) it remains cruelly correct to say that these patterns have created, and perpetuated, an unprecedented and extreme gap between rich and poor societies. (28) The new division of labor is marked by a 'dematerialization' of production, in the sense that advanced industrial countries export labor-intensive production to impoverished countries: this enables flagrant violations of human rights of workers, notoriously in the export-processing zones. (29)

Second, despite the tendency towards slow transition of transnational corporations and "alliances" (30) (or perhaps because of this) it remains true that multinational corporations dominate processes of globalization. (31) The MNCs are new forms of sovereignty of late capitalism and resist all claims to accountability and rule of law, while claiming the fullest benefit of access to all basic human rights (including freedom of speech, the right to property and the right to legal personality consistent with corporate will and power).(32) In this sense, MNCs continue to reproduce the law's infamy." (33)

Third, globalization creates a risk society, (34) a political economy of risk distribution and unredressed victimage. Globalization of risks entails "new international inequalities, firstly between the Third World and Industrial states" (Bhopal being the archetype) and "secondly among industrial states themselves. Although globalization posits the image of the "whole world as a risk society" such that

the life of a blade of grass in the Bavarian forest comes to depend on the making of and keeping of international agreements [given the "universality and supra-nationality of pollutants"] (35)

millions of human victims of industrial mass disasters, especially in the Third World, remain less fortunate than a "blade of grass in the Bavarian forest" as the MNCs continue to flout even the idea of their human rights responsibilities.

Fourth, globalization produces its own epistemologies (e.g., decision-making under conditions of uncertainty; cost-benefit analysis, risk-analysis and management - in short, the "globalization of doubt") consistent with their power and profit. Thus, social relations of globalization increasingly create an impression of lack of agency (and therefore of human rights responsibilities) while the formation of a global stock market, of global commodity (even debt) futures markets, of currency and interest rate swaps, together with an accelerated mobility of funds signifies, inaugurally, "the formation of a single world market for money and credit supply" the structure of this global financial system is now so complex that it surpasses most people's understanding. (36)

Fifth, more recently, global business has sought and won increasing legitimation from the United Nations system (e.g. Business Council for the Commission on Sustainable Development). Many NGOs, including HRE NGOs, are also on their way to mime their own business councils, with great expectations of ameliorating Late Capitalism.

Sixth, at the level of symbolic, or in the political economy of signs (as narrated by Jean Baudrillard) globalization is a 'culture of excess,' producing its own hyperrealities: (37)

Piles of images, heaps of information, flocks of desires, so multiplied, the images represent nothing but themselves, information does not inform, desires turn into their own objectives the world is no longer a scene ( place where the play is staged, when as we have the right to suspect, will be directed towards some concrete ending, even if we do not know in advance what it is); instead, it is obscene: a lot of noise and bustle without a plot, scenario, director - and directions. It is a contactual, not a contractual, world. (38)

In an obscene world, human rights become tenuous of meaning. The rights-enunciations fail to adjudicate the riot of multiplicity of meanings. They cannot perform the labors of a social contract in a contactual world. Where power, in Baudrillard's words, in its final form, becomes organization and manipulation of death (and death represents social, cultural, spiritual, civilzational cessation/cancellation of being human) human rights movements attain a monumental agenda, under whose weight they also increasingly confront 'death.' Indeed, in a post-modern world or political economy of signs/simulation: the "all-too sullied world" melts into a dew, in whose misty horizons images of human rights-oriented human futures also flicker and fade.

Underlying all these, and related, features of globalization is the steady appropriation of human rights discourse by and for the multinationals.(39) For example:

It is needless to multiply instances but it is clear that the MNC's image of human rights as market-friendly or trade-related human rights is already firmly entrenched and will command increasing operational consensus of states and international agencies. Already, human rights discourse stands instrumentalized in terms of merely international public policy on development (meaning free trade, deregulation, liberalization, structural adjustment and allegiance to the hegemony of industrial countries) in the United Nations Summit on Social Development Declaration and Program of Action.

Albert Camus foresaw and bemoaned the hypocrisy of such cooptation:

But slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy or by the taste of superhuman, in one sense cripple judgment. On the day when crime dons the apparel of innocence - through a curious transposition characteristic of our times - it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself. (40)

Forces and relations of globalization tend to "cripple judgment" even among communities of human rights and HRE practitioners. A utilitarian approach to science and technology, suggesting even the 'gains' to human rights by some developments, does not fully address challenges to human rights inherent in the accelerated progress of globalization. The vicissitudes of a utilitarian approach are poignantly illustrated by biomedical advances facilitating reproductive rights on the one hand and on the other by exploitation and expropriation of women's bodies by pharmaceutical multinationals. There is much to be learnt, beyond mere utilitarian approaches, from the narratives of this conflicted discourse of womens' rights as human rights and multinational appropriation.

In may senses, the terrain of human rights, and HRE, movement would seem to be in the direction of de-globalization or at least deceleration of the pace of globalization. When labor is being 'dematerialized,' consumption universalized and production localized, surely the site of HRE must be the local as a ghetto of the global. It is on this terrain that the struggles of demystification of the operative and oppressive ideologies of globalization have to begin. Surely, the victims of globalization know its cruel truths, productive of their destinies, inscribed on their docile bodies and tormented souls. They certainly need to be "empowered" by "education." But who would be these educators? How de we make ourselves wary of the real dangers of alienation from those whom we would help empower themselves? For how long shall we sleep with the enemy that forces and relations of globalization implant us with? How far can jet-set, E-mail , credit-card activist culture herald the struggles for deglobalization, for the conquest of local spaces, for the recovery of plurality, diversity, interculturality? How shall we chisel images of authentic human rights educators? How shall we, in the words of Camus, be equipped to endure the burden of justification of our innocence?

HRE, howsoever conceived, has to simultaneously engage in understanding and undermining the new world in the process of becoming. It is on this perspective that the various formulations of the "objectives" of HRE, in the United Nations discourse, bare themselves to full view and summon HRE endeavors to beyond their untruth. The platitudinous-sounding conclusion of this essay has to be understood in this light.


The emergent discourse on HRE has to be itself inherently dialogical. This is perhaps easily said than done. Even eminent thinkers mix and merge both rights-weariness and rights-wariness. For example, one of this decade's most authoritative exponents of moral philosophy insists that human rights are no more than "moral fictions" and the plain truth is

there is no [human] right and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns . . . In the United Nations Declaration on human rights of 1949 what has since become the normal UN practice of not giving good reasons for any assertion whatsoever is followed with great rigor. (41)

Many a political leader and regime, alas!, will be tempted to agree. This is how practices of knowledge and practices of power often reinforce each other. HRE has to enable discourse which confers the status of "truth" on human rights, (which are no mere "moral fictions") and to enable people everywhere, including philosophers, to learn how belief in human rights is different from beliefs in "witches" and "unicorns." HRE should develop the potential of the people to combat growing moral nihilism (a mark of postmodernisms) and in particular of educating the educators in the meanings of morality.

Discursive equality requires atonement for the heavy past -- the colonial/imperial past, the cold-war past, and the neo-cold-war past in the making.

Dialogical equality also requires construction of humiliation's Other -- humility before history.

Likewise, the silences in the HRE discourses (so far surveyed) have to be empowered to speak to us. Victims of human rights violations should be enabled to speak to us concerning conditions which make the gross and flagrant violations of human rights possible, including corruptibility of democratic regimes cultivated by transnational capital, traffic in armaments, state hospitality to 'mercenaries,' spread of hazardous technologies worldwide and the arrogance of patriarchy (which denies dignity to women) and of the late twentieth century forms of capital (which denies the dignity of labor, as if working class struggles never took place in history).

The dialogism of HRE must enable, empower peoples of the world to pour content into 'abstract' conceptions such as 'progress,' 'development,' 'peace,' 'tolerance.' Dialogism has, by the same token, to create a fuller awareness concerning the attainment of international cooperation in these areas.

Dialogical HRE, like all education, must begin with a sense of humility. To the tasks of HRE, all nations come as, more or less, equal strangers, whereas all peoples of the world come as cognoscenti who have experienced repression or struggle, and knowledge which such experience brings concerning human rights and fundamental freedoms. Collective self- education is essential to build a true fellowship of learning.

This great human endeavor at HRE has to modify Karl Marx's thesis on Feuerbach to say: "The various Declarations on HRE have merely explained what HRE might be; the task, however, is to change."

The tasks of human rights education are so historically imperative that with Schiller we must say

What is left undone one minute
is restored by no eternity.


(1) For an elaboration of this notion, see U. Baxi, "From Human Rights to the Right to be Human ..." 13 India International Quarterly (1986); for a revised version, see U. Baxi, Inhuman Wrongs and Human Rights: Unconventional Essays 1-17 (1994: Delhi, Har Anand Publications).

(2) See Chapter Two ("Politics of Memory in an Era of Technonarcissism") in U. Baxi Inhuman Wrongs and Human Rights, op. cit 18-27.

(3) Mary Daly insightfully defines "consumer society" as Partiarchy, the "state of Annihilation, the State of Reversal" in which the consumed are misnamed as the "consumers" and the true consumers are honored as prolific producers/creators. Mary Daly (with Jane Caputi) Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language 192 (1985, 1987: Boston, Beacon Press)

(4) See for a most recent survey, Mark Jurgensmeyer, The New Cold War?: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (1993; Berkeley, University of California Press).

(5) F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992: New York, Frees Press)

(6) As is not self-evident from the two volumes of United Nations bluebooks Human Rights: A Compilation of International Instruments (1996: Sales No E. 94, XIV.1)

(7) In particular, the Recommendations of the UNESCO International Congress on the Teaching of Human Rights (Vienna, 1978), the UNESCO International Congress on Human Rights Teaching, Information and Documentation (Malta, 1987) and the International Forum on Education for Democracy (Tunis, 1992)

(8) Roberto M. Unger "The Critical Legal Studies Movement," 96 Harv. L. Rev. 561 (1983).

(9) See U. Baxi, Mambrino's Helmet?: Human Rights for a Changing World 1-17 (1994: Delhi, Har Anand Publications).

(10) The Decade shall be, as per Article 1 of the Draft, based upon "the provisions of human rights instruments, with particular reference to those provisions addressing human rights education."

(11) The normative bases, according to Article 2 of the Draft are:

  1. the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;
  2. the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;
  3. the formation of understanding, tolerance, gender equality, and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples, racial ethnic, religious and linguistic groups;
  4. the enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free society;
  5. the furtherance of the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace."

(12) E.g. Maurice Cranston says "once a right is conceived as an ideal, you acknowledge its impracticality; it becomes easier to dismiss it as a right." See his "Are There Any Human Rights?" 112 Daedalus 1-17 (fall 1983); the writings of political philosopher Allan Buchanan consistently interrogate the claims of human rights languages to any unique or distinctive status. He, invoking the notion of Age of Rights, puts it to severe and sustained interrogation, but only at the level of the jurisprudence of national legal orders.

(13) See supra note 6.

(14) See Richard Pierre Claude, Human Rights Education in the Philippines (Manila, Kalikasan Press, 1991) for a lucid overview of the evolution of HRE as state policy and the activist response. Memorandum Order No. 20 (HRE for arresting and investigating officers), Executive Order No. 27 (government departmental responsibilities for HRE) and Executive Order No 163 (mandating HRE as an aspect of Human Rights Commission) are important devices of state policy emergent during Corazon Aquino's regime. The Interim Constitution of South Africa also under Article 116 contains an incipient HRE mandate for the Human Rights Commission.

(15) It is in this context that one welcomes the prospect of a World Report on Human Rights Education proposed recently by the People's Decade on Human Rights Education and the nascent Independent Commission on Human Rights.

(16) See, for example, U. Baxi, "The Right to be Loved and to Learn" in his Inhuman Wrongs and Human Rights 158-168 (1994; Delhi, Har-Anand Publications).

(17) I have evocatively sketched the notion of HRE as liberational education in the lineage of Paulo Friere and the notable work by Hernando de Soto. See his The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World (1989; New York, Harper & Row). Undoubtedly, this tradition has charismatic exponents and innovators worldwide. HRE, in this tradition, is well summed up by Shulamith Koenig (whose pioneering work in gestating the HRE Decade is well known) as "education for social transformation."

(18) See, e.g., the provocative analysis in Zygmut Bauman, Intimations of Postmodernity 1-26 (1992: London, Routledge).

(19) See, e.g., Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press); Stephan Mulhall & Adam Swift, Liberals and Communitarians (1992; Oxford, Blackwell); and Veena Das, Critical Events (1995; Delhi, Oxford University Press).

(20) See, for example, the U.S. Biotech Corporation Genex 1982 Annual Report:

"DNA can be thought of as a language, the language in which all genetic information is written. As with any language, it is desirable to be able to read, write and edit the language of DNA . . . . It is by this editing process that the naturally occurring text can be rearranged for the benefit of the experimenter."

Quoted in Henk Hobbelink, Biotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture 23 (1991; London, Zed Books; emphasis added). See also Vandana Shiva The Monocultures of Mind (1993; Delhi, Natraj Publications).

(21) See Vandana Shiva, supra note 25; and Hope Sand, "Biopiracy: Patenting the Planet" Multinational Monitor 9-13 (June, 1994).

(22) The most profound thinker of 'desire', after Freud, is Jacques Lacan who has further mystified the "enigma of desire." Desire for Lacan is an endless eternal, "stretching forward, towards the desire for something else", J. Lacan Ecrits 166-67 (1977): New York, Norton; trans. Alan Sheridan).

(23) S. Elias & G. J. Annas, "Somatic and Germline Therapy" in Gene Mapping: Using Law and Ethics as a Guide 142-156, (1992).

(24) See. e.g., Susan Wright, Molecular Politics: Developing American and British Regulatory Policy for Genetic Engineering, 1972-1982 (1994; Chicago, University of Chicago Press).

(25) See, e.g., Jerry Mander, Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television (1977; New York, William Marrow/Quill).

(26) Upendra Baxi, Marx, Law and Justice: Indian Perspectives pp. 51-84 (1993; Bombay, N.M. Tripathi).

(27) The most frequently mentioned are: the transition of some LDCs into NIC (New Industrial Countries); 'cartelization' of manufacture by some DCs (e.g. OPEC) and the emerging presence of developing societies multinational enterprises.

(28) See The Times Atlas of World History 294 (1978; London, Times: G. Barraclough ed.).

(29) See Sammy Adleman, "The International Labor Code and Exploitation of Female Workers in Export- Processing Zones" in Law and Crisis in the Third World 195-218 (1993; London, Hans Zell Publishers; Sammy Adleman and Abdul Paliwala eds.).

(30) See. R. Gilpin, The Political Economy of International Relations (1987; Princeton, Princeton University Press). Gilpin refers to a vast array of 'negotiated arrangements' which now obtain: "cross- licensing of technology among corporations of different nationalities, joint ventures, orderly marketing arrangements, secondary sourcing, off-shore production of component and crosscutting equity ownership" (at p. 256).

(31) About 300 MNCs account for 70 percent of direct foreign investment and 25 percent of the world capital. About 20,000 MNCs commanded, in 1988, assets over $4 trillion; they appropriated 25-30 percent of the aggregate GDP in all market economies; 75 percent of international commodity trade and 80 percent of world traffic in technology and management competencies. See J. Dunning, Multinational Enterprises in Global Economy (1993; Workingham, Addison-Wesley).

(32) See for a draft declaration of a Bill of Rights for Multinations, U. Baxi "'Summit of Hope' In the Depths of Despair?: Social Development as Realization of Human Rights" (March 1995; mimeo).

(33) See Peter Fitzpatrick, "Law's Infamy" in Law and Crisis in the Third World, supra note 34, at 27- 50.

(34) See U. Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1992; London, Sage: transl. Mark Ritter).

(35) Ibid.

(36) David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 161 (1989; Oxford: Blackwell; emphasis added).

(37) See J. Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (1975; St. Louis, Telos); Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (1989, Cambridge: Polity Press).

(38) Bauman, supra note 22 at 151.

(39) See. e.g., Our Global Neighborhood: The Report of the Commission of Global Governance; and for a critique U. Baxi, "'Global Neighborhood' and the 'Universal Otherhood': Notes on the Report of the Commission on Global Governance" (June 1995, mimeo).

(40) Albert Camus, The Rebel 4 (1957; New York, Alfred Knopf; trans. Anthony Bower). Justifiably, Camus inaugurates the end of his discourse in The Rebel by reaffirming: "I rebel; therefore, we are."

(41) Alasdir MacIntyre, After Virtue 69 (1984; Indiana, University of Notre Dam Press).