There are many people around the world, in particular vulnerable groups such as women and children, who are either not aware of the existence of the UDHR or who do not think that it applies to them, or that it could benefit them. It is not possible for people to fight for and defend rights and entitlements, which they are not aware of. The absence of reports of human rights abuses in certain ‘stable’ countries does not necessarily mean that such abuses are not taking place; rather, it is a consequence of media bias (and possibly its manipulation) and a habituation to violence that has forced people to find security in silence.
The goal, then, is to create an open society where the state respects and protects the rights of its citizens, and where citizens are aware, concerned, and actively involved in governance and vigilance. This requires civic education that aims at teaching the very basic freedoms such as freedom of assembly, association and movement to the grassroots population, in particular the vulnerable groups such as women. This emancipatory kind of education builds on the traditions of critical theory and liberation pedagogy (see Case Study 15.1 and Au ). It embraces all cultures who respect basic human rights and virtues (Banks, 2002).
The United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education and Training (1995-2004) prepared the ground for two subsequent phases. The Plan of Action for the Second Phase (2010-2014) of the World Programme for Human Rights Education emphasized that:
human rights education can be defined as any learning, education, training and information efforts aimed at building a universal culture of human rights, including:
- The strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;
- The full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;
- The promotion of understanding, tolerance, gender equality and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and minorities;
- The enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free and democratic society governed by the rule of law;
- The building and maintenance of peace;
- The promotion of people-centred sustainable development and social justice. (UNHCR, 2010, n.p.)
The renowned cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1972, p. 261) defined culture as “the shared patterns that set the tone, character, and quality of people’s lives”. Most anthropologists, including Geertz, agree on definitions that refer not to observable behaviour per se but to the “shared ideals, values, and beliefs that people use to interpret experience and generate behaviour and which are reflected in their behaviour” (Haviland, 1996, p. 32). When acted upon by members of a society, culture gives rise to “behaviour that falls within the range of variation the members consider proper and acceptable” (Haviland, 1996, p. 32). This explains why the UN’s Action Plan refers to a ‘culture of human rights’, and a ‘universal’ one to boot. Without this fundamental and universal entrenchment of underlying beliefs and values, attention to human rights could come and go among the vagaries of fashion. On the other hand, the UN’s mandate for multiculturalism unfortunately prevents this universalism from becoming translated into effective action. Multiculturalism is informed by the principles of cultural relativism – the belief that any culture’s values and beliefs are as valid as any other culture’s. This principle of boundless tolerance is clearly not helpful in the case of cultures that do not recognise human rights; it stands in the way of the UN’s goal of strengthening human rights worldwide.
One way out of this conundrum would mean for the UN to recognize that, contrary to popular opinion, culture is not static. We can acknowledge cultural diversity while at the same time expecting cultures to develop over time toward more inclusive attitudes and a broader shared platform of values and ideals. Additional support should come from the other side of every right – much neglected in the human rights discourse—moral obligation or duty. Recognising that, regardless of our cultural differences, each of us has an obligation to buy into certain shared values—we have done so, for example, with the abolition of slavery – might help to make that shared global culture of human rights a reality.
Acknowledging that the creation of a human rights culture is not an event, but a long process that is aided by information dissemination, civic education and the gradual growth of political will, civil society has a big role to play in reaching out to the grassroots population as well as communicate at the intergovernmental level. Through formal and informal human rights education it will influence governments to enact and enforce legislations that further protect and promote the human rights and dignity of citizens. The biggest need exists obviously in countries and communities where populations have suffered state sponsored violence, where there is a general fear of state institutions and their agents by the citizens. For instance, in Zimbabwe, where state ‘security’ agents have been the biggest perpetrators of political violence, citizens get unsettled when they see army trucks in the village or any vehicle with government registration numbers. The media are absorbed in self-censorship for fear of forced closure, arson and arrest whilst civil society regularly goes into hiding. In those situations, education must begin through grassroots initiatives, NGOs, and external support by the international community. Following an appropriate change of government, the cycle will gain further momentum.
OECD counties, who generally enjoy a reputation of being beyond such struggles, should by no means be exempted (Banks, 2002). With regards the situation in the US, Au (2014) presents numerous examples of curriculum designs and classroom activities that increase awareness of racism and discrimination, introduce students to role models of resistance and empower students to engage in debates and advocacy. On the Canadian side the legacy of the infamous residential schools for indigenous peoples continues to exert its toll on the human security of First Nations. Beginning in the 1840s, government and churches colluded in policies that amounted to cultural genocide , interning more than 150,000 indigenous children after forcibly removing them from their families (Stromquist, 2015). More than 6,000 children perished in those institutions. The last residential school closed in 1996, 38 years after Canada had signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 14 years after the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had become law. A damning report by a national inquiry commission revealed the lack of government attention into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and the government’s attempts at covering that up, appeared at the time of writing (National Inquiry, 2019).
Case Study 15.1
Paulo Freire and Liberation Pedagogy
During the height of the Cold War, many South American countries were ruled by military juntas that stayed in power through brutal suppression of any political opposition and blatant disregard for human rights. In return for US support they kept their countries free of socialist insurgency movements.
Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a high school teacher in Brazil with a law degree who had spent much of his youth in poverty. At the time only literate Brazilians were allowed to vote, which he saw as a compelling reason to teach literacy to the poor. After some impressive successes with adult literacy programmes, he was imprisoned as a traitor by a newly risen military dictatorship.
Freire was able to flee into exile in the US and then Switzerland where he worked as an academic and expert for education policy and curriculum reform. His most famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) contributed significantly to the new field of critical theory of education. His particular contribution can be summarised as liberation pedagogy. It provides descriptive models for the ways in which autocratic regimes stay in power by manipulating the education system to the effect that the poor remain undereducated (and often illiterate) which prevents them from attaining any significant political power. More significantly, their lack of education keeps them from realising their own oppressed situation, acting as oppressors over each other on behalf of the powerful elites. His famous remedy was ‘conscientisation,’ the development of a political awareness and of the analytical skills to contradict and counteract the oppressive system. The basis for their active involvement is the empowerment that conscientisation brings about. His famous insight that the education process is never neutral in terms of values, assumptions, and power relationships remains as significant as ever in a time when ‘objectivity’ is being indiscriminately claimed by (and demanded of) journalists, commentators, trainers, and educators worldwide.
After the end of military rule in Brazil in 1979 Paulo Freire returned to Brazil where he continued his work as a researcher in education and political science and as Secretary of Education in São Paulo. The Politics of Education appeared in 1985. His work contributed substantially to the development of civil society in many postcolonial situations throughout the world and to the counterhegemonic efforts of oppressed and exploited people under all kinds of political systems. Freire served as a role model for thousands of teachers in poor neighbourhoods who understand only too well what irresistible power can come from the right kind of education.
Educational efforts are still ongoing to bring the legacy of racist policies to the awareness of Canada’s dominant ‘settler’ culture, to overcome decades of denial and coverups, and to work towards the active engagement of all sectors of Canadian society in the project of decolonisation. Particular significance in today’s multicultural societies is imparted on educational efforts towards the cultural safety of minorities (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2011a).
Education and advocacy for human rights almost invariably meets with resistance, for the same reasons as the circumstances that render it imperative; a society that is perpetuated by habitually violating human rights can hardly tolerate any efforts to discontinue such perpetuation. Often the resistance manifests as right-wing rhetoric, as casual disparagement in everyday discourse, or in passive resistance.  However, insofar as the education is perceived to threaten status quo power relationships such resistance tends to become violent. The example of the human rights movement in the US has been widely publicised but the focus across North America has still not widened enough to include other cultural minorities besides the obvious African and Latino ones, least of all the survivors of the continent’s indigenous populations. Violent resistance can emanate from non-governmental organisations such as the Ku Klux Clan—which shows that civil society by no means always sides with progressive movements—or it can through various covert and overt means be sponsored directly by the state. In 1960s Brazil this is what occurred in response to the efforts by the prominent counterhegemonic human rights educator Paulo Freire (see Case Study 15.1).
The all-important first step towards sustainable human rights in a worldwide framework will have to be a frank and open discussion of the issues at hand. Global limits, needs and capacities, rights and duties, means and ends must be made explicit and placed on the table in panel discussions, parliamentary debates, academic conferences, classrooms at all levels, governmental organisations, election meetings, public hearings, council meetings and any other public forum that promises leverage with the wider public. The longer the issues remain below the public horizon the greater will be the possibility that events will overtake deliberations.
Two particular issues seem especially pertinent and urgent for these discussions. One is the balance between moral relativism and moral universalism. Global human rights obviously represent the latter, but they also protect the right of cultural minorities to preserve and practice their traditional customs. In practice, this calls for the careful negotiation of compromises where traditions impinge on rights. Secondly, the discussion will have to address the obligations that come with rights, as we mentioned above, beyond the general provisions in Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Spelling out and respecting what obligations come with each generation of human rights might help resolve the problem of grantability and expedite the process of education towards more effective action plans.