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Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law [MPEPIL]

Human Rights Education

Wolfgang Benedek

From: Oxford Public International Law (http://opil.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved.date: 19 January 2021

Right to education — Right to non-discrimination

Published under the auspices of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law under the direction of Professor Anne Peters (2021–) and Professor Rüdiger Wolfrum (2004–2020). 

A.  Notion of Human Rights Education

1.  Definition

There are different definitions of human rights education (‘HRE’). Nancy Flowers, for example, has defined it simply as all learning that develops the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training of 2011 (‘Declaration on HRE’; UNGA Res 66/137) summarizes the main aspects by declaring that

Human rights education and training comprises all educational, training, information, awareness-raising and learning activities aimed at promoting universal respect for and observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and thus contributing, inter alia, to the prevention of human rights violations and abuses by providing persons with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behaviours, to empower them to contribute to the building and promotion of a universal culture of human rights (Art. 2 (1); United Nations [UN]; United Nations, General Assembly).

Building on the definition contained in the Plan of Action of the United Nations Decade on Human Rights Education (1995–2004) (UN Doc A/51/506/Add.1, 4), the World Programme for Human Rights Education Plan of Action for the First Phase defines HRE, in para. 3 Revised Draft Plan of Action for the First Phase (2005–2007) (UN Doc A/59/525/Rev.1, 3), as

education, training and information aiming at building a universal culture of human rights through the sharing of knowledge, importing of skills and moulding of attitudes directed to:

  1. (a)  The strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;

  2. (b)  The full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;

  3. (c)  The promotion of understanding, tolerance, gender equality and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and racial, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups;

  4. (d)  The enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free and democratic society governed by the rule of law;

  5. (e)  The building and maintenance of peace;

  6. (f)  The promotion of people-centred sustainable development and social justice.

According to para. 4:

Human rights education encompasses:

  1. (a)  Knowledge and skills—learning about human rights and mechanisms for their protection, as well as acquiring skills to apply them in daily life;

  2. (b)  Values, attitudes and behaviour—developing values and reinforcing attitudes and behaviour which uphold human rights;

  3. (c)  Action—taking action to defend and promote human rights.

This definition responds to different models of HRE: ie the values and awareness model, which aims at integrating human rights into public values through general awareness; the accountability model, where people get involved in the protection of human rights; and the transformational model, according to which communities use human rights to improve their situation (see Tibbitts).

HRE needs to be distinguished from civic education or education for democratic citizenship, inter-cultural education, and education for international understanding as well as for peace and tolerance, and the more recent education for global citizenship and for sustainable development. HRE should be an indispensable part of all these forms of education. The purpose of HRE can be described as human rights literacy, consisting of knowledge, skills and understanding of human rights. HRE thus is essential for mainstreaming human rights into the work of UN bodies and agencies as part of the UN reform agenda promoted by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (United Nations, Secretary-General).

2.  Objectives and Functions

According to Art. 26 (2) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (‘UDHR’) and Art. 13 (1) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (‘ICESCR’) the right to education (Education, Right to, International Protection)

shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

These objectives are necessarily also part of HRE.

HRE should contribute to building an active civil society necessary for pluralist democracy and good governance. HRE contributes to other important fields of political education, such as peace education (Peace, Right to, International Protection). It has a particular role to play in post-conflict rehabilitation of societies and in countries in transformation to pluralist democracies. According to UNGA Resolution 59/113 B of 14 July 2005 on the World Programme, the UN General Assembly believes that HRE is essential for realizing human rights, contributes to promoting equality, prevents conflict and human rights violations, and enhances participation and democratic processes.

HRE further promotes the prevention of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, and can thus contribute to the prevention of extremism and terrorism. Teaching about different cultures and civilizations improves ethnic and religious understanding. HRE aims at non-discrimination and gender equality as required by the pertinent human rights instruments. It also promotes inclusion of minorities and vulnerable groups as well as persons with disabilities.

B.  Legal Basis and Obligations

1.  Existence of a (Human) Right to Human Rights Education

A human right to HRE can be logically derived from the legal obligations contained in the UDHR and Art. 13 ICESCR, subsequent declarations and resolutions, the practice of international treaty bodies, and even the general practice of States. HRE forms part of the human right to education. According to Art. 26 UDHR ‘education shall be directed… to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’. This phrase has been reiterated verbatim in Art. 13 (1) ICESCR. Accordingly, such a conclusion has convincingly been drawn by academia (see Alfredsson). The obligation of HRE was considered so fundamental that it had already been expressly included in the preamble to the UDHR which requires that ‘every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms’. The Declaration on HRE avoids formally declaring it a human right but in substance confirms it by expressing that ‘[e]veryone has the right to know, seek and receive information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms and should have access to human rights education and training’ (Art. 1).

10  The obligation of HRE is not only limited to the State, but to all organs of society and the individual, which are directly entrusted with this task. Consequently, the State has to accept, if not encourage, HRE activities by civil society and other actors as recognized in Art. 10 Declaration on HRE. This has already been confirmed by Arts 15 and 16 Human Rights Defenders Declaration, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the UDHR (see UNGA Res 53/144 [9 December 1998] GAOR 53rd Session Supp 49 vol 1, 261).

11  In addition, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (‘CROC’) of 1989 (Children, International Protection), which has been ratified by 196 States, with the notable exception of the US and thus can be considered truly universal, contains a similar provision in Art. 29 (1) (b) CROC. It requires that the education of children shall be directed to ‘the development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’ (Art. 29 (1) (b) CROC). This was further elaborated by General Comment No 1 (2001) of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child ([17 April 2001] UN Doc CRC/GC/2001/1) (Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)).

12  Numerous other conventions and declarations, eg Art. 7 International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (‘CERD’; Human Rights, Treaty Bodies; Racial and Religious Discrimination) and Art. 10 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (‘CEDAW’; Women, Rights of, International Protection), contain provisions to promote adherence to the goals and respect of the obligations contained therein by education. A good example can also be found at paras 129 to 139 Programme of Action of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance of Durban ([8 September 2001] UN Doc A/CONF.189/5).

13  Awareness of one’s human rights is obviously a precondition for the full enjoyment of those rights. States are not always in favour of making every human person on their territory aware of their rights, whether those persons be citizens or non-citizens like migrants.

2.  Scope of Human Rights Education

14  As a main element of HRE, States are required to provide access to all relevant information in relation to the full enjoyment of human rights. Consequently, States have to inform their public about all human rights obligations entered into. States should also make their reports to UN treaty bodies on the implementation of their human rights obligations publicly available and, in line with Art. 19 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) (‘ICCPR’) on freedom of expression and information, give access to all information on their human rights practice (Opinion and Expression, Freedom of, International Protection; Information and Communication, Freedom of, International Protection). Access to all information includes access to all information available through information and communication technologies (‘ICT’) or digital sources and tools, which have gained much importance.

15  The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which oversees the implementation of Art. 13 ICESCR, requires States also to include information on the activities in the field of HRE in their regular reports under the ICESCR (Human Rights, State Reports). Treaty bodies have used their general comments to require States to report in more detail on their HRE activities. For example, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women General Recommendation No 3 urged States to adopt effective education and public information programmes to eliminate prejudices and current practices hindering the social equality of women (UN Doc A/42/38; Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)). The Human Rights Committee (‘HRC’) regularly requests that HRE is provided at all levels and to all segments of the population. It also requires States to publish and distribute its concluding observations on State reports.

16  The importance of access to information for HRE has been highlighted by UNGA Resolution 51/104 of 3 March 1997 on the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education and Public Information Activities in the Field of Human Rights (UN Doc A/RES/51/104) as well as Art. 1 Declaration on HRE. With regard to its special procedures on human rights, the UN also publishes the reports of all special rapporteurs, who frequently require more efforts by States with regard to HRE (Special Rapporteurs of Human Rights Bodies). This is particularly true for the reports of the special rapporteur on the right to education. Transparency is necessary in order to hold governments accountable in relation to their human rights obligations. In the framework of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), States have to report every six years on progress accomplished in the implementation of the UNESCO Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 19 November 1974 (Records of the General Conference of the UNESCO 18th Session vol 1, 147). With regard to State practice, some States have adopted specific recommendations on HRE. The German Conference of Ministers of Education, for example, adopted a recommendation on the promotion of HRE in schools in 1980, which has been reconfirmed several times, such as in 2018.

C.  Historical and Institutional Development

1.  Building a Universal Framework for Human Rights Education

17  UNESCO, the UN agency with a particular mandate for education in its constitution, was the first to organize a World Conference on Human Rights Education, which took place in Vienna in 1978 and adopted a number of principles for human rights teaching. A second major move by UNESCO was the International Congress on Education for Human Rights and Democracy in Montreal in 1993, which elaborated a World Plan of Action on Education for Human Rights and Democracy. The second UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in the same year gave particular attention to HRE and reminded States in Part I para. 33 and Part II paras 78 to 82 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action that they are duty-bound to assure HRE and that HRE should be integrated into the educational policies at national and international levels.

18  As the result of the initiative of some non-governmental organizations (‘NGOs’), such as the People’s Decade on Human Rights Education (‘PDHRE’), and some States, such as Costa Rica, in 1994 the UN General Assembly proclaimed the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (‘Decade’) for the period 1995 to 2004, for which purpose a plan of action was adopted. Among the activities foreseen was the adoption of national HRE plans, which, however, were not effectively realized by most countries, with few exceptions such as Croatia, France, and Scandinavian countries.

19  The responsibility for administering the Decade was entrusted to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Human Rights, United Nations High Commissioner for [UNHCHR]), albeit without the necessary additional funding. Although complementary activities were undertaken by UNESCO, in particular on the regional level, inter-agency cooperation remained unsatisfactory.

20  Consequently, both the global mid-term evaluation and the final evaluation of the Decade undertaken jointly by UNHCHR and UNESCO at the request of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights/United Nations Human Rights Council showed that the Decade, although successful in some respects, overall had been unable to meet its objectives. Therefore, the World Programme for Human Rights Education was adopted as a new approach. It foresees the elaboration of successive plans of action for periods that were originally to be of three years but were subsequently extended to five years. The First Plan of Action for the period 2005–2007, which was extended to 2009, focused on HRE in the primary and secondary school systems. It supported a rights-based approach to education consisting of human rights through education, meaning that the whole learning process has to be conducive to learning human rights, and human rights must also be practised within the education system. The second phase from 2010 to 2014 had a focus on higher education and training of teachers and educators, civil servants, law enforcement officials, and military personnel, and the third from 2015 to 2019 on media professionals and journalists, while the fourth phase, which is to begin in 2020, will have a focus on youth.

21  For each phase an implementation strategy by way of an action plan has been outlined for the national level, which is to be coordinated by the ministries of education. The action plans distinguish four stages: the first stage is an analysis of the situation of HRE in the respective field by way of a national study; the second stage is devoted to developing priorities and a national implementation strategy; the third stage consists of measures of implementation and monitoring; and the fourth stage is devoted to an evaluation to take place at the mid-term and after the end of the phase based on a guidance note by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is designed as a self-evaluation and there is no specific body to discuss the reports, which vary widely. On the international level, an Inter-Agency Co-ordinating Committee has the task of mobilizing resources and support actions at the country level by providing system-wide UN support. The UN treaty bodies and special procedures are called upon to monitor progress within the framework of their mandate. For example, the performance of a State may play a role in recommendations under the Universal Periodic Review (‘UPR’).

22  In practice, implementation of the detailed obligations in the action programmes has never been satisfactory. States have ignored or only partly implemented their obligations as can be seen from the reports received. While only a minority of States has reported at all on their practice, their number is in fact declining. The global backlash in the field of human rights can also be found in the efforts of States to meet their obligations in the framework of the World Programme for Human Rights Education.

23  The Declaration on HRE of 2011 is the result of a separate process that produced a new legal basis for human rights education, although it is of a soft law nature. It has five main objectives: (1) raising awareness for human rights, (2) development of a universal culture for human rights, (3) effective realization of human rights, (4) ensuring equal opportunities for all, and (5) a contribution to the prevention of violations of human rights (Art. 4). For this purpose, States should also accept international assistance and cooperation (Arts 7 and 12). The World Programme for Human Rights Education as well as national and local needs should be taken into account (Art. 8). A variety of actors including civil society institutions and human rights defenders are called upon to play a role (Art. 10). International and regional human rights mechanisms should take human rights education and training into account in their work (Art. 13).

2.  Regional Approaches

24  In Europe, the Council of Europe (COE), the Office on Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (‘ODIHR’) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union (‘EU’) have each developed significant activities in the field of HRE. The COE has the oldest and largest role. It bases HRE activities on several recommendations such as the COE Committee of Ministers Resolution (78) 41 on the Teaching of Human Rights of 25 October 1978; the COE Committee of Ministers Recommendation (85) 7 on Teaching and Learning about Human Rights in Schools of 14 May 1985; the COE Committee of Ministers Recommendation 1346 (1997) on Human Rights Education of 1–2, 7 July 1999; and the COE Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2004) 4 on the European Convention on Human Rights in University Education and Professional Training of 12 May 2004, replaced by COE Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2019) 5 on the System of European Convention on Human Rights in University Education and Professional Training of 16 October 2019 (European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms [1950]). Since the end of the Cold War (1947–91), numerous education and training activities in human rights have been undertaken by European regional organizations, in particular in the new democracies. The COE has also incorporated HRE into its programmes on education for democratic citizenship. For this purpose the Committee of Ministers in 2010 adopted a Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education (COE Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2010) 7 of 11 May 2010), the implementation of which was strengthened by the Declaration, Key Actions and Expected Outcomes on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights of the Conference on the Future of Citizenship and Human Rights Education in Europe of 22 June 2017 (available at <https://rm.coe.int/declaration-key-actions-and-expected-outcomes-on-education-for-democra/1680734485> [14 May 2020]).

25  OSCE annually organizes so-called ‘human dimension implementation meetings’, which also have a focus on HRE. The EU, which on 10 December 1998 adopted a declaration on the 50th anniversary of the UDHR putting special emphasis on HRE, is the largest supporter of HRE activities through its European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (‘EIDHR’), which are often implemented by the COE or by competent NGOs. The EU also focuses on post-graduate education in human rights by supporting regional master’s programmes on human rights and democracy in Venice, Sarajevo, Yerevan, Beirut, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, and Pretoria, which together encompass more than 100 universities forming a ‘global campus’.

26  In Africa, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACommHPR) has undertaken numerous HRE activities mostly in cooperation with NGOs in pursuance of Art. 45 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981) (‘AChHPR’). Under Art. 25 AChHPR, which today covers all of Africa, States Parties have

the duty to promote and ensure through teaching, education and publication, the respect of the rights and freedoms contained in the present Charter and to see to it that these freedoms and rights as well as corresponding obligations and duties are understood.

The ACommHPR also promotes the translation of regional and international human rights conventions into local languages, which is a necessary precondition for making people aware of their rights. In a similar way, one of the main functions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACommHR) is ‘to develop an awareness of human rights among the peoples of the Americas’ (Art. 18 Statute of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [approved October 1979] in OAS Basic Documents Pertaining to Human Rights in the Inter-American System [Washington DC 2007] 163).

27  In Asia, national human rights institutions play a particular role in promoting human rights education. But there is also the ASEAN University Network Human Rights Education (AUN–HRE), which promotes human rights and peace education, develops teaching materials, and organizes training activities.

28  In line with the UN activities, UNESCO organized several conferences to elaborate regional strategies and recommendations. Such conferences included: the European Implementation Strategy (Turku 1997); Strategies for the Promotion of Human Rights Education in Africa (Dakar 1998); the Pune Declaration on Education for Human Rights in Asia (1999); the Rabat Declaration for an Arab Strategy on Human Rights Education (1999); the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights Education and Dissemination (2000); and, the Mexico City Declaration on Human Rights Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (2001). However, financial reasons forced UNESCO to reduce its activities in this field. Nonetheless, it became the lead organization to promote ‘global citizenship education’, of which human rights education forms an essential part.

D.  Implementation of Human Rights Education

1.  Actors and Target Groups

29  The main actor of HRE is the State, which acts through its educational institutions and through training or continuing education programmes in particular for professional groups such as the judiciary and law enforcement agencies such as the police. On the national level the competent authorities are expected to cooperate closely with a variety of pertinent institutions and stakeholders identified, for example, by paras 29 and 30 World Programme. These include teachers, colleges and universities, national human rights institutions, national commissions for UNESCO, and civil society institutions such as human rights centres.

30  Promoting HRE is also part of the mandate of international organizations concerned with human rights (Human Rights, Activities of International Organizations). This is particularly true for the UN, which in accordance with Art. 55 (c) Charter of the United Nations (‘UN Charter’; United Nations Charter), is to promote ‘universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms’ (United Nations, Purposes and Principles), the main responsibility for which has been entrusted to the UNHCHR in Geneva. Since 1978, the UNESCO prize on HRE has regularly honoured best practices in this field. Furthermore, regional organizations in Europe such as the COE, the ODIHR of the OSCE, the EU, and human rights organizations in other regions offer and support HRE for specific target groups and in various Member States, either directly or through NGOs. NGOs such as Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Education Associates or People’s Movement for Human Rights Education play an important role in HRE (Human Rights, Role of Non-Governmental Organizations).

31  Particular HRE programmes exist not only for the judiciary, the police, border guards, the military—in particular peacekeepers—but also for groups with special needs and vulnerabilities, such as indigenous people, ethnic or religious minorities, and disadvantaged groups including, inter alia, women, children, and people with disabilities. The particular rights of these groups need to form part of HRE. In view of the crucial role of the media, HRE is of particular importance for journalists. As a human rights-based approach is increasingly applied in development cooperation, eg by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) or taken into account by the World Bank (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development [IBRD]; World Bank Group), HRE programmes are offered to staff involved in human development programmes as well as to recipients of aid.

2.  Methodology and Resources

32  A variety of methodologies have been developed to facilitate teaching and learning about human rights. As a cross-cutting subject there is a need for an interdisciplinary approach which in a holistic way covers all human rights for all age groups and all groups of society by giving special attention to the needs of disadvantaged groups. In transmitting knowledge, attitudes, and skills, HRE should be problem-oriented, inter-active and participatory. Transformative HRE should instigate critical thinking and empower people to improve their conditions of life.

33  HRE needs to be offered in formal, non-formal—out of school—and informal education based on daily practice. It has to be part of both life-long learning and professional education where specific methodologies can be used for different groups, such as HRE training for the police, for judges and prosecutors, for peacekeepers, development workers etc. The inter-relationship and inter-dependence between human rights, human development, and human security has to be taken into account. Raising the HRE awareness of law students, moot courts, and human rights-focused legal clinics, which sometimes provide legal assistance to disadvantaged groups, has proven to be particularly useful.

34  There is an abundance of teaching materials and learning resources provided by international organizations and non-governmental institutions as well as university centres and individual academics which can largely be accessed on the internet, such as the UNHCHR database on human rights education and training. There is a growing wealth of digital resources and ICT-based methodologies. More needs to be done regarding research on methodologies and the impact of human rights education. Specializations are possible through distance education and a number of post-graduate programmes such as the Venice-based European Master’s Programme on Human Rights and Democratisation and similar master’s programmes around the world (see above para. 25).

E.  Assessment and Future Perspectives

35  The importance of HRE for the full enjoyment of human rights and the obligation of States to provide it has been recognized in numerous universal and regional conventions, declarations, and resolutions. However, the implementation of the commitments entered into is often more problematic. This can be learned from the experience of the Decade on HRE and the first phase of the World Programme. Some States appear to be afraid of making people aware of their rights and assisting them to claim those rights in their daily lives. It can also be observed that ministries of education are often more hesitant to take on obligations in HRE than ministries for foreign affairs. Therefore, it largely depends on international monitoring and the strength of civil society on the domestic level whether the international obligations on HRE will be implemented. It is interesting to see that developing countries and countries in transition have often taken the obligations more seriously than developed countries such as Germany or the US. Summing up, rhetorical recognition of HRE obligations often fails to correspond with their practical implementation (Human Rights, Domestic Implementation).

36  However, the UN Decade and the World Programme did have an effect on the awareness of and the practice regarding HRE on the international level as well as on the national and even the local level, where numerous stakeholders have been mobilized to undertake concrete activities. Although the results are still far away from the objective of building a culture of human rights, significant progress can be observed at all levels.

37  This also concerns the approaches or methodologies of HRE which have become more participatory and transformative, thus contributing to the realization of human rights in practice. An example is the social invention of so-called human rights cities where, based on extensive HRE, local communities try to situate their activities in the framework of human rights and thus realize them on the local level. For the future, the main focus has to be on the implementation of the various commitments towards HRE at all levels and by all States and other stakeholders.

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