Human Rights Education: An Elementary School Level Case Study By Megumi Yamasaki Ph. D. Thesis Completed June 2002 University of Minnesota Education Policy & Administration/Comparative & International Development Education Chapter 1

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Chapter 2: Literature Review

In this chapter, the researcher will be presenting previous studies of Human Rights Education (HRE) to illustrate kinds of resources available for HRE educators and school administrators to implement HRE in their schools. The chapter includes (1) definition of human rights, (2) definition of UDHR, (3) history of HRE, (4) HRE assumptions, (5) purpose/goals/objectives of HRE, (6) developmental/conceptual framework of HRE, (7) approaches to HRE, (8) role of school in promoting HRE, (9) challenges of HRE, and (10) other HRE case studies in comparison with the Partners.

Definition of Human Rights

According to Human Rights Glossary in Human Rights (Appendix C), human rights definition was summarized as “the rights people are entitled to simply because they are human beings, irrespective of their citizenship, nationality, race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality or abilities” (The Human Rights Educators’ Network of Amnesty International USA, 1998, p. 134). The definition of human rights includes five categories: civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights (see Appendix C, Glossary for these definitions). Despite having the same definition of these five categories of rights, interpretations of these human rights categories varies depending on several factors. Some scholars say that the interpretations are different based on historical experience, value system, ideology, jurisdiction and political and economic situation (Garcia, 1992; McNeilly, 1993; Ray & Tarrow, 1987). For example, societies that place greater importance on individuality than on the collective culture emphasize civil and political rights rather than economic, social and cultural rights, whereas, societies more focused on the collective culture emphasize economic, social and cultural rights over civil and political rights. In addition, in many cases, regardless of which rights are valued in which society, the society tends to value certain groups and/or people instead of all groups and/or all people. It means that human rights are not enjoyed by all people.

While the interpretations of human rights typically fall into one of these scenarios, it is imperative in HRE that all five categories of human rights are emphasized (Lister, 1984). In order to recognize the social and cultural rights of people of various backgrounds, we need to respect some basic, common value as human beings, such as in UDHR. Such common human value must be reflected in “the government of the people, for the people, by the people” just as Abraham Lincoln said.

For the United States, it is especially important to include social and cultural rights, as the United States evolves into a more multicultural society (Lister, 1984). The idea of social responsibility is inherent to human rights. This means that when we talk about human rights, we are not only talking about our own individual rights, but also about other people’s rights even when they come from different cultural, ethnical, societal backgrounds. According to Hofstede (1984), America typically is described as an individualistic culture. It is easier for people to think about what their own rights are than what all people’s rights are. Until we can practice rights for ourselves and others, the purpose of the UDHR has not been accomplished.

The achievement of human rights for all people is a never-ending struggle for a fairer and freer social order. While some people believe the concept is a utopian idea (Salvat cited in Magendzo 1994), nonetheless, human rights must be used as a paradigm from which we can read our history and future as a people (Magendzo, 1994, p. 252). When human rights are fostered at all levels of society, social practices---be they legal, economic or educational---can be challenged and modified.

What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

When nations become members of the United Nations, they agree to accept the obligations of the UN Charter, an international treaty which sets out basic principles of international relations. According to the Charter, the UN has four purposes: to maintain international peace and security, to develop friendly relations among nations, to cooperate in solving international problems and in promoting respect for human rights, and to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations.

UDHR was created so that all people could practice their rights fully regardless of their backgrounds. It places importance on all rights and on social responsibility (Misgeld, 1994; United Nations, 2000). The thirty standards set forth in the UDHR provide a framework for addressing human rights violations (Reardon, 1995; Human Rights Educators Network, 1998). Furthermore, these standards reflect the growth of an emerging sense of universality and provide norms that strengthen the potential for a system of shared global values, an essential requisite to an authentic world community (Reardon, 1995; United Nations, 2000).

When human rights become the universal norm or value system in the world community, all persons can equally, universally, and forever hold these rights (Human Rights Educators, 1998). However, more than fifty years after its establishment, the goal of UDHR, which was established 1948, has not been achieved. In today’s society, human rights violations are not in the physical forms of world wide wars, but more systemic and economic oppression. At the same time, physical violations are taking place on a smaller scale compared to the past two world wars such as between ethnic, religious, racial, and other groups. We must recognize that human rights are inalienable, indivisible and interdependent: nobody can lose their rights any more than they can cease being a human; nobody can be denied a basic human right; and, all human rights are part of a complementary framework. The Partners project uses the same definition.

Brief History of Human Rights Education

Throughout the history of school education in the United States and the world, various educational concepts regarding human rights have been introduced under many different names. During the 1940s and 1950s, the most popular approaches in the U.S. were Education for International Understanding (EIU); its companion, International Education; and Intercultural Education (Reardon, 1988). This was due to people’s seeking ways to create peace rather than destruction through education after World War II. EIU and International Education viewed distinct nations through a comparative perspective, seeing differences among cultures, nations and political systems as well as commonalties among all peoples (Reardon, 1988).

During the same decade, a United Nations Economic and Social Council resolution invited the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to “encourage and facilitate teaching about the Universal Declaration in school” (Symonides, 1998, p. 98). UNESCO’s purpose is to “contribute to peace and security by collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the role of law and for human rights and fundamental freedoms” (p. 77).

In 1953, the Associated Schools Project for International Cooperation on Peace was started under UNESCO’s leadership (Symonides, 1998). This program started with thirty-three secondary schools in several countries and explored the ways of teaching “about foreign countries and peoples, human rights and the activities for the United Nations” (p. 99). As of April 1998, a total of 4,810 associated schools in 153 member nations were participating. They ranged from primary education level to college level, and especially teacher preparation programs.

In the 1960s, Global Education emerged in the U.S. as a new multidisciplinary concept. This movement can be summed up in the notion of Spaceship Earth (Reardon, 1988). This was the time that environmental problems and their effects on people started to get attention. Drought and famine, the oil crisis, and pollution showed us the interdependency of our world. Moreover, like EIU and International Education, Global Education emphasize the commonalities among people. Yet, in addition, through their focus on the interdependence of all human groups, Global Education went beyond the ‘commonality’ factor by teaching that all nations were part of one planetary system.

In 1974, UNESCO adopted the Recommendation Concerning Education for International Cooperation and Peace and Education Relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the Recommendation) (McNeilly, 1993; Sebaly, 1987; Tarrow, 1992). In 1978, UNESCO held the first International Congress on the Teaching of Human Rights, the Vienna Conference. As a result people became the center of the curriculum, rather than nations (McNeilly, 1993; Symonides, 1998). Often, teaching nation–first or group-first education brings tragedy to human beings---such as two World Wars and other wars between countries and groups of many kinds. For example, the nation-first idea led the Japanese educational system to educate its people to be ethnocentric, especially before and during the World Wars. This resulted the tragedies of Japanese citizens and, most of all, of many innocent citizens in many Asian and other countries in the world. As a result of the conference in Vienna, UNESCO recommended the creation of a six-year plan from 1977-1982 to develop guidelines that would help governments implement HRE (McNeilly, 1993; Symonides, 1998).

In 1989, the International UNESCO Conference in Yamoussoukro adopted The Declaration of Yamoussoukro on Peace in the Minds of Men, which noted the following guidelines:

  • Build a new peaceful vision based on the respect of life, liberty, justice, cooperation, tolerance, sexual equality and human rights.

  • Recognize the common fate of all humanity.

  • Include, as a permanent part of any educational planning, the elements of peace and human rights.

  • Propose new programs to protect and manage the environment that are based at the international level.

In 1993, The World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna, Austria. The Vienna Declaration and Program of Action marked the culmination of a long process of review and debate over the current status of human rights in the world. It also marked the beginning of a renewed effort to strengthen and further implement the human rights instruments that have been painstakingly constructed on the foundation of the UDHR since 1948. In 1994, the suggestions from The Plan of Action of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) gave detailed standards of HRE. These standards were set by the United Nations General Assembly at the World Conference on December 23, 1994. Resolution “49/184 proclaimed the 10-year period beginning on 1 January 1995 the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education” (

The standards were:

  • Strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;

  • Full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;

  • Promotion of understanding, respect, gender equality, and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and racial, national, ethnic religious and linguistic groups;

  • Enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free society;

  • Furtherance of the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace (Human Rights Educators Network, 1998, p. 21).

The Human Rights Educators Network felt that, in order for HRE as defined above to be actually implemented in an educational structure, especially formal education, it would be necessary to develop some sort of HRE guidelines for schools. The Human Rights Educators Network (1998) believed that the implementation of HRE is of paramount importance to school curricula, because it:

  • Declares a commitment to those human rights expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the U.N. Covenants and the United States Bill of Rights. It asserts the responsibility to respect, protect and promote the rights of all people.

  • Promotes democratic principles. It examines human rights issues without bias and from diverse perspectives through a variety of educational practices.

  • Helps develop communication skills and informed critical thinking essential to a democracy. It provides multicultural and historical perspectives on the universal struggle for justice and dignity.

  • Engages the heart as well as the mind. It challenges students to ask what human rights means to them personally and encourages them to translate [concern] into informed, nonviolent action.

  • Affirms the interdependence of the human family. It promotes understanding of the complex global forces that create abuses, as well as the ways in which abuses can be abolished and avoided. (p. 20).

Human Rights Education Assumptions

How can we foster the value of peace for all people and the use of non-violent ways of solving problems? HRE is predicated on the assumption that we can build a humane and responsible society through education (Sime, 1994).

Human Rights Education (HRE) has received increasing attention due to the demands made upon public consciousness for social justice (Misgeld, 1994). As we already know, school education and societal needs are closely connected. For example, during war time, education has been used to control citizens’ attitudes and behavior, teaching them to hate and fight against other groups of people. But many people in the society have been calling for positive change in the system, wanting to create a just society for all people and to build a community where people feel safe and secure. When we turn on TV or read newspapers and magazines, we see the cry for positive change in society, due to the current violence around us. Education must respond by providing a framework that people can use for such a change.

HRE can play an important role in providing such a framework for action. The first and most important component of HRE is, the researcher believes, that it begins with people who want change in society from a human rights perspective, and who actually will take action as a result of HRE. Because HRE has various potential obstacles to being implemented at school, the researcher assumes, that HRE instructor/educator has a personal feeling towards human rights issues and willing to work with those obstacles. Also, because one of the important goals of HRE, which will be introduced later in this chapter, is to take actions for human rights based on the acquired knowledge, it is safe for the researcher to say that the students who go through HRE are hoping to take some action for human rights. That is, it leads people from acquiring knowledge about human rights to actually taking action based on what they learned.

The second important aspect of HRE is that it can exist only in a social and cultural context. Sparks (1994) believes that people’s ethical development can only take place within a social context. This means that ethical frameworks and cultural and social “beliefs are acquired through social experience, and values are learned through human interactions” (p. 316). If a society does not believe in people’s rights and will accept people being disrespectful to each other, people in the society will behave and act accordingly. When people realize the importance of creating a respectful environment for all, HRE can provide them with a great framework.
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