* Jefferson R. Plantilla is a staff member of HURIGHTS OSAKA.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) organized the Experts Seminar on "Combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance: role of education" on 19-21 September 2005 in Bangkok. The Seminar focused on South and Southeast Asian countries.
Mr. Dzidek Kedzia of the OHCHR explained that the Seminar is part of the regional approach taken by his office regarding the implementation of the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA). The Seminar was the first sub-regional activity in Asia. He cited the High Commissioner (Louise Arbour) who stated that the DDPA is important as a "functional common agenda to counter discrimination in all of its manifestations." He also cited the recommendation of the Group of Eminent Experts about awareness-raising and access to education as crucial in the struggle against discrimination, and education as a "tool to assist victims of discrimination in overcoming their disempowered situation." He mentioned the recently adopted World Programme for Human Rights Education of the United Nations (UN) which supports the campaign against discrimination. He likewise mentioned the statement of heads of governments in the recent World Summit held at the UN headquarters in New York which expressed support for "tolerance, respect, dialogue and cooperation among different cultures, civilizations and peoples."
Finally, he stressed that the OHCHR plan of action recognizes the continuing discrimination in various forms around the world that should be addressed. The Vice Minister of Education of Thailand, Mr. Piyabutr Cholvijarn, in his opening remarks emphasized the Thai monarchy's recognition of human rights and the continuing effort of the Thai Government to ensure that education reaches all children, especially the ones who are disadvantaged.
Mr. Pierre Sob, Acting Coordinator of the Anti-Discrimination Unit of the OHCHR, explained the mechanisms that implement the DDPA. While stressing the important role of education in eradicating discrimination and exclusion, he also emphasized the challenges facing the field of education on this issue. Mr. Darryl Macer of UNESCO introduced the International Coalition of Cities against Racism project as an initiative launched by UNESCO in 2004 to establish a network of cities interested in sharing experiences in order to improve their policies and strategies to counter racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance for a greater urban social inclusion. He added that for Asia-Pacific, the Bangkok Municipal Authority (BMA) has accepted to play the role of the Lead City for the region.
Resource persons discussed the World Programme for Human Rights Education, the concept of right to education and its relation to quality education, national experiences on human rights education in schools, informal education on human rights relating to discrimination in South and Southeast Asia, and the role of the media.
The participants considered the challenges facing the full implementation of DDPA in Asia-Pacific as enormous. They range from poverty, to hierarchical social structures; from national policies aimed at building homogenized society, to tensions arising from different religious beliefs; from impunity for perpetrators of discrimination, to government denial of the existence of discrimination, and also include problems within school systems.
The participants discussed good practices in South and Southeast Asia that address the problem of discrimination and exclusion. Cited as good practices are measures and initiatives that support access to, as well as quality, education for children disadvantaged by different social, economic, ethnic backgrounds including those belonging to indigenous communities, girls, children of different nationalities, and those with disabilities. They recognized the importance attached to the creation of indigenous schools, the food-for-education program, and a sub-regional project on human rights education. In addition, the participants also cited as good practices the training of migrant workers, the involvement of members of minority community in judicial academies, the establishment of institutions devoted to the socially-excluded, special programs of national human rights institutions to increase public awareness on discrimination, awareness-raising programs on the rights of women and children, intercultural dialogue between different communities, and networking, advocacy and lobbying and the building of solidarity to combat discrimination.
The participants called on Governments in cooperation with the OHCHR, UNESCO, other inter-governmental organizations and civil society to take actions such as
The participants suggested the inclusion of the objective of eliminating discrimination and exclusion in the school curriculums and processes. They urged training based on core human rights instruments, for teachers, other professionals, youth, business leaders, and other professions and segments of society supported by incentives for effective participation. They also urged
They likewise supported the inclusion of the human rights component into the curriculums for training of judges and other legal professionals.
On non-formal education, the participants reaffirmed the need to overcome discrimination and exclusion through awareness-raising initiatives, involving the civil society and through cross-cultural cooperation. There is need to nurture human-rights-sensitive mindset through community-oriented activities addressing the entire society from a young age; and to strengthen the role of the family in the promotion of tolerance and mutual respect.
The participants urged support for community-oriented initiatives through
There is a need to promote access to information technology and overcome the information divide within societies and at the international level. There is also a need for forums for discussion of the plight of socially excluded, including Dalit and Buraku, in meetings and seminars in this region and beyond.
Since the Seminar discussed experiences in the region, the participants urged the development of research, documentation and information-sharing to promote and popularize good practices on human rights education, particularly with regard to countering racism, xenophobia and related intolerance, as well as to address malpractices. Related to this is the need for strengthening networking among all stakeholders of human rights education and awareness-raising programs related to discrimination; coordination between institutions involved in countering racial discrimination and xenophobia, and human rights education at the national level. Additionally, they urged
As a follow-up, the participants requested OHCHR to undertake a review of the implementation of the recommendations adopted two years later.
The Seminar provided an opportunity for the agenda of the 2001 Durban conference on combating racism and discrimination to be discussed again in the context of South and Southeast Asia. This time a plan of action (DDPA) as well as good practices were available for discussion. This is certainly an improvement over the discussions in the years prior to the Durban conference. Now the issue is how to ensure the implementation of an international plan of action agreed upon by Governments.
In this context, it is regrettable that most South and Southeast Asian governments failed to send representatives to the Seminar. They were not able to share with the Seminar participants their effort to implement the DDPA, or learn from the experiences of other countries in this regard. The Seminar agenda is very specific to education, and thus the representation of the Ministries of Education (MOEs) and other relevant government agencies is much needed. It is thus appropriate to give credit to the MOEs of Afghanistan, Cambodia, Laos, and Maldives for sending representatives to the Seminar.
It is also notable that the Seminar linked the implementation of DDPA to a number of other UN initiatives such as the World Programme for Human Rights Education, the UNESCO project on coalition of cities against discrimination, and the general statement of Government leaders on global issues (2005 World Summit). It is important to remind Governments that the different UN initiatives are all linked to human rights and thus they can also be linked at the operations level. Available (even though limited) resources (financial, logistical and human) at the national level can be pooled or reprogrammed to obtain a decent implementation of international commitments. Good practices, many of which are yet to be recognized, can be found in the different countries. Such good practices are waiting to be replicated and even improved for better use.
The need for national, regional and international initiatives to converge is long overdue. This is necessary to avoid wasting opportunities, time, money and other resources.
Fina lly, from a human rights perspective, domestic issues are matters of international concern. Thus the debate on caste discrimination and its relation to DDPA is best settled by getting international support to stop the inhumane treatment of Dalits. Working on the problem will eventually render the debate moot and simply academic.
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1. This is the Southeast Asian initiative on human rights education in schools which comprised of workshops and the development of human rights lesson plans (with English, Khmer, Vietnamese and Bahasa Indonesia versions). See Workshop on Southeast Asian Human Rights Lesson Plans, www. hurights.or.jp/asia-pacific/040/05.htm, for the latest activity held.