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FOCUS December 1997 Volume 10

Human Rights, Culture and the Schools

(This is a summary of the proceedings of a regional meeting held in Bangkok on September 23-25, 1997. The meeting was attended by representatives of NGOs, national human rights commissions and schools from 10 Asian countries. It was jointly organized by HURIGHTS OSAKA, Child Rights Asianet and ARRC - Editor's note.)

Human rights education in schools is not a new terrain in Asia. In Sri Lanka, a program for the teaching of human rights has been existing since 1983. In Japan, the government adopted many years ago a DOWA education policy to stress the importance of equality and development of consciousness against discrimination. The 1987 Philippine Constitution mandates the teaching of human rights in schools. India has recently developed materials for human rights education in schools. While the Cambodian government has been supportive of the NGO initiative on this issue.

This situation is certainly a major development in the human rights field. But this does not mean that human rights education in schools has reached a significant influence in the Asian region. It has remained a minor educational activity that needs as much support for material and human resource development.

Several major issues were identified in a recent meeting in this regard. These concerns show the areas that an effective spread of human rights education among schools should consider.

A major concern is on teacher training. One of the major obstacles to human rights education in schools is the lack of opportunities for teachers to study and practice new ideas in teaching human rights. Past experience shows that the very atmosphere in schools create an attitude of lack of respect for human rights. The authoritarian style of teachers, for example, is not a model for understanding the practice of human rights. Teachers therefore may need to look more closely at a concept of human rights education that embodies the very idea of respect for human rights in both knowledge input and practice. A teacher training program may dwell on the following areas: concept of human rights; human rights curriculum development; preparation of materials for teaching human rights; and participant-centered teaching methods.

Changing the mindset of government bureaucrats regarding the understanding of human rights and human rights education is another major concern to human rights educators. There seems to be a persistent perception that human rights is an anti-government concept and therefore useful only for those who are labelled as subversives or rebels. Closely related is the sense of insecurity on the part of the teachers that make them think that human rights education would lead students to simply assert their rights in schools and undermine their authority. Such a wrong understanding of human rights and human rights education hinders respect for human rights.

It is also true that there is a resistance to human rights education in schools because of fear among teachers that it adds more burden to their already heavy teaching load. This reaction is expected of teachers who have not been oriented on the trend toward integrating the teaching of human rights into existing subjects rather than creating new ones. A basic requirement is a better appreciation of the meaning of human rights and its relevance to various subjects in school from civics to mathematics.

It has also been suggested that a review of the concept of human rights education itself is necessary to clarify the vision for human rights education.

An example of the DOWA education in Japan is the Kunijima Highschool in the city of Osaka. The Kunijima system employs human rights principles in every aspect of the school affecting students (as the center of the educational process), the teachers (as facilitators), and the process of learning (one that promotes group activities, sharing of/speaking out about problems, self-discovery, and individualized curriculum).

In terms of needs, a major area is in the sharing of materials, pedagogical experiences, and expertise in teaching human rights. This will help bring the existing resources to groups in countries that are starting to set up human rights education programs for schools. Teacher training programs, teaching material and human rights curricula development activities are very important resources that can be shared between groups and schools within Asia and the Pacific. Groups in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and the Philippines have teacher training programs which have been implemented over a number of years already. Their experiences can be good case studies for others to learn.

Systems and materials that are contextualized in an Asian setting will be more relevant to many Asian countries. At the same time, the systems and materials that have been developed will have a greater chance of improvement as ideas and experiences are shared among those who are deeply involved in human rights education in schools.

Needless to say, there is already an expertise that can be used by the groups and schools in the region. Such expertise may either be those of non-governmental organization workers or teachers themselves.

Creating a system for sharing these resources within the regional is the consequent challenge.

Any activity however need to have a clear sense of direction. Where will all these human rights education work in schools lead to? A shared vision for human rights education will be helpful in creating a system for interaction and distribution of materials among human rights educators in schools.

HURIGHTS OSAKA has been promoting the idea of using the cultural values-human rights framework for human rights education in schools. Simply put, this framework means that the understanding of human rights can be made richer by relating the same to the positive and deeply-held values of the community such as respect for life, freedom from oppressive systems, importance of peaceful resolution of conflicts, protection for the weak, disabled and the old, and even respect for the environment and other (non-human) life forms.

This framework is similar to the efforts in some countries in the region that use culture to address social injustices (as in the case of India) and to bring back positive values among people traumatized by internal conflict and oppressive government (as in the case of Cambodia).

There is however a clear understanding that there are negative aspects in every culture. One usual example is the caste system in South Asia which survives even among Buddhist religious groups despite assumed knowledge of Buddha's rebellion against unequal treatment of people. This is the case of Sri Lanka. It is therefore important to be careful in using culture in relating it to the promotion of human rights. This follows the principle of 'selective assimilation, selective resistance' developed by Gandhi in linking old traditions with new, modern ideas.

There is also the principle of interrelatedness which demands that a discussion on human rights should cover different aspects of human existence. And thus, again, the respect for life and for non-violence should not only extend to human life but to other life forms as well. It was also stressed that old culture should not be treated as inferior. Traditional cultural values can be reviewed and related to modern ideas such as human rights. The old one can be fused with or strengthened by the new one as they form one interrelated whole.

In looking at cultures, the principle of 'digging deep into one's well' is necessary to be able to see how at the core of one's own culture one finds consonance with other people's cultures. This leads to an understanding of the interrelatedness of cultures. This is also related to the idea of inter-cultural values which may find relevance in a multi-cultural society such as Sri Lanka.

The participants affirmed the need to have a regional initiative in support of the efforts at the national level on human rights education in schools. Thus subregional workshops not only for Southeast and South Asia but also for Northeast Asia should be held. The inclusion of China in this initiative was strongly proposed and agreed upon.

Toward the end of the meeting, it was stressed that human rights education activities are being done in a changing environment. The recent call by the leaders of Malaysia and China to review the Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens the ground for more thinking on why human rights should remain universal and indivisible as they are. The call of a private institution, which has former Presidents and Prime Ministers as members, for the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities opens another aspect of the human rights debate that looks at the issue of responsibility especially in the light of local cultures. Lastly, the call by Ms. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, while she was still the President of Ireland, to enrich the human rights discourse by explicit reference to non-western religious and cultural traditions brings out the importance of the present meeting. She pointed out that by '...tracing the linkages between constitutional values on the one hand and the concepts, ideas and institutions which are central to Islam and the Hindu-Buddhist tradition or other traditions, the base for support for fundamental rights can be expanded and the claim to universality vindicated...'

The challenge therefore of human rights education that is relevant and sensitive to the local contexts is more than just understanding human rights laws but facilitating deeper reflection on own legal, social, political, economic and cultural milieu.