SGI Quarterly

Issue 66 | October 2011

An Education in Human Rights | Andrew Fagan

  • Human rights education

Andrew Fagan is Director of Academic Studies at Essex University’s Human Rights Centre. He is the author of several books, including The Atlas of Human Rights (2010) and Making Sense of Dying and Death (2004). He outlines the key elements of effective human rights education.

For its supporters and opponents alike, the doctrine of human rights has become a truly globalized phenomenon. Some of the most powerful as well as some of the most powerless members of the human race appeal to human rights. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, appeals to human rights in many of his foreign policy speeches. Similarly, citizens across the Middle East and North Africa have been willing to risk their lives in their attempts to overcome decades of human rights violations.

“Human rights” have become, arguably, the two most evocative and powerful words in global political discourse. The power of human rights to transform societies has already been witnessed within many formerly authoritarian regimes, from the military juntas of South America, through to apartheid South Africa and the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Those who would seek to continue to exercise power to the detriment of those over whom they rule have good reason to fear these two words.


A man looks at photos from an exhibition on the Holocaust, dedicated to the 30,000 women, Jews, Romas, Catholics, Communists and other political enemies of Nazism who were deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp during WWII. [Photo credit: © AFP]

One might imagine that words with the potential to transform human lives in such a dramatic fashion would be well understood. It would be easy to assume that the countless millions of people who turn to human rights as the principal mechanism for overcoming political and economic oppression share a common and accessible understanding of what human rights substantively consist of and refer to.

What human rights are, legally speaking, can be discerned and identified simply by reading all of the treaties, covenants, conventions and instruments which comprise an ever-expanding body of law. But the view that human rights can be simply understood is quite false and, in some cases, harmful to the pursuit of human rights. What human rights are and what they require in order to be adequately protected and promoted are questions which defy easy, ready-made answers.

Overcoming Ignorance

The political activist may care little for such apparently academic concerns as these. If words have the power to realize desirable political ends, why should one care about their meaning, or whether they express a coherent moral vision?

Interestingly, the political activist’s impatience with intellectualism is echoed within aspects of human rights theory itself. Thus, many philosophers of human rights have argued that human rights exist as a consequence of human beings’ ability to recognize a natural and immutable moral order that provides a template for organizing good human societies. Our exercise of reason enables us to recognize what is universally right to do. From this perspective, an education in human rights requires merely opening all human beings’ eyes to the existence of a natural law, which applies to human beings everywhere. To accept that it is always wrong to take a human life, or that it is always wrong to subject another human being to cruel and degrading treatment, requires little more than thinking correctly, free from distortion, bias and ignorance. In a sense, those who continue to violate and abuse human rights may be thought of as suffering from a lack of a suitably enlightened mind. Instances of this approach are apparent in those who argue that overcoming, for example, a culture’s systematic violation of the rights of women requires merely educating those men who are ultimately responsible for subjecting their womenfolk to continuing inequality and discrimination. Human rights violations are blamed on ingrained ignorance, and the means for overcoming ignorance in any form is education.

An effective human rights education will require shining a light into places which many of us have preferred to avoid.

This model of human rights education requires projects which aim to enlighten those who have yet to benefit from a sufficiently enlightened education in order to overcome an ignorance of the moral authority of human rights. Education provides the principal tool for the exercise of so-called “soft power” attempts to make the world a better place. Many such projects have been established by organizations such as UNESCO and the European Union. Some of these at least have successfully improved the lives of some people.


Activists in Kolkata, India, display banners at an exhibition held to mark World Human Rights Day. [Photo credit: © AFP]

While such a characteristically didactic approach to education has deep roots within some western cultural landscapes, it does not, I believe, provide the most effective and valuable approach to educating people about human rights. Indeed, continuing attempts to export what some have criticized as merely western ideals and values to the rest of the world run a very real risk of being rejected as the more recent manifestation of arrogance and hypocrisy.

This charge poses a very real threat to the legitimate objectives of globalizing respect for human rights. A truly enlightened human rights education needs to be very much more rigorous and critical if the human rights project is not to become fatally compromised.

'Human rights’ have become, arguably, the two most evocative and powerful words in global political discourse.

Human rights are undeniably based upon an appeal to three moral ideals: freedom, equality and human dignity. These ideals must not simply comprise the fundamental content of a human rights education, but must also characterize and inform the manner in which educating people about human rights is pursued and realized. Human rights evoke a shared human condition; they aim at and are based upon breaking down the walls which divide us in order to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, systematic human suffering. The essence of human rights is to provide a common language for humankind. All of these characteristics are obscured and even fundamentally threatened by an unduly and zealously didactic approach to human rights.

What is urgently required is the development of an alternative approach to human rights education. This approach needs to be characterized by intellectual honesty and a willingness to accept some unpalatable truths about the world in which we live.

Space limitations prevent a detailed formulation of this alternative model. I will evoke its character by reference to just some of the fundamental truths upon which a model of human rights education should be based.

Radical Transformations

We must acknowledge that many self-defined supporters of human rights—from powerful states to well-intentioned individuals—sometimes, knowingly or otherwise, violate human rights. Guantanamo Bay was the most obvious symbol of western human rights hypocrisy, but is merely the tip of an iceberg in this respect. All too often the arms hardware deployed in overtly oppressive states’ attempts to quell popular demonstrations have been produced in ostensive human rights supporting states, such as the United Kingdom and France. So much of the fabric of developed consumer societies’ economies is based upon importing goods produced under oppressive conditions. It is difficult, if not impossible, to live a truly and entirely ethical life as a consumer within affluent societies. Correctly identifying the globalized nature of human rights violations requires a willingness to acknowledge this particular unpalatable truth.

The genuine global realization of human rights will require radical transformations, and not only among the “usual suspect” countries and regions of the world. An effective human rights education will require shining a light into places which many of us have preferred to avoid. The task is not simply to convince others of the wrongness of their actions, but to honestly accept the extent to which even ostensive human rights supporters have contributed to the construction of a world which falls far short of the ideals upon which human rights are founded.