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  5. The UN Decade for Human Rights Education: Asia-Pacific Scenario

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FOCUS September 1998 Volume 13

The UN Decade for Human Rights Education: Asia-Pacific Scenario

p>The idea of having a United Nation's Decade for Human Rights Education started to spread in the Asia-Pacific when the campaign for a People's Decade for Human Rights Education was launched in the late 80s. A number of human rights organizations in the region supported the campaign. At that point, the prospect of having a United Nations-declared Decade was not very positive. A move to have a People's Decade was considered instead. But with the support from the 1993 Vienna conference and with the widespread NGO campaign, the UN finally approved the adoption of a UN Decade (1995-2004) in December 1994. The journey of the UN Decade thus begun on the first day of January 1995.

Regional activities

In the 1993 Bangkok NGO Human Rights Conference, the NGOs called upon the United Nations to declare a "People's Decade for Human Rights Education and Training." The parallel governmental conference, on the otherhand, reiterated the need "to explore ways to generate international cooperation and financial support for education and training in the field of human rights at the national level and for the establishment of national infrastructures to promote and protect human rights if requested by States." The ideas of the two major human rights conferences in the region being held parallel to each other are almost similar as far as having a support system for human rights education is concerned.

In 1994, the Asian Regional Resource Center for Human Rights Education (ARRC) started announcing the forthcoming adoption of the UN Decade. It convened in November of the same year a NGO regional meeting in Thailand on human rights education and endorsed the need for involvement of NGOs in the UN's "World Decade for Human Rights Education." The "World Decade" is seen as a good opportunity for human rights educators to fulfill regional and national human rights education plans.

In December 1995, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights organized an Asia-Pacific conference-workshop on human rights education and development. The conference-workshop, attended by both government and NGO representatives, had the theme "Building a Community of Partners for Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific region." The conference-workshop declared that:

"In the spirit of the Plan of Action of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), human rights education in Asia-Pacific region shall be directed to creating the broadest possible awareness and understanding of all the principles, norms and concepts enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, and all other relevant international human rights instruments."

The conference-workshop recommends the governments, national human rights institutions and NGOs to:

"Pursue national plans of action on human rights including national plans for human rights education as their commitment to the UN Decade for Human Rights Education in consultation with all sectors of the civil society taking into account the needs of the most vulnerable groups. Proceeding from this, the Asia-Pacific nations consider the possibility of drafting a regional plan of action for human rights education, building on the rich cultural heritage of the region in consultation with all concerned sectors."

Furthermore, the conference-workshop recommends to consider the "establishment or strengthening of institutions to coordinate national programs in human rights education and to put in place programs to strengthen linkages between grassroots communities and human rights agencies to ensure continuing awareness of the vitality of human rights principles."

In August 1996, the Diplomacy Training Program and the Australian Human Rights Information Center of the University of New South Wales Faculty of Law organized a NGO workshop on the theme "Task for the UN Decade for Human Rights Education." The workshop strongly notes the "undue emphasis on national structures" by the UN Decade Plan of Action for the coordination and implementation of human rights education. It further states that an important objective of the UN Decade is to "liberate human rights education from the clutches of international, national and professional bureaucracies." It thus emphasizes the "critical importance of people's plan of action" to promote the objectives of the UN Decade.

The workshop, emphasizing the need to take into account the human rights situation in the region, recommends that NGOs:

  1. safeguard the integrity of all human rights education activities;

  2. undertake evaluation of the impact of human rights education activities;

  3. forge solidarity alliances to address the human rights education needs in particularly different country situations;

  4. enhance the exchange of experiences, knowledge and skills in the area of human rights education; and

  5. prevent monopolization of human rights education activities by the national government and human rights commissions.

In September 1997, HURIGHTS OSAKA in cooperation with Child Rights Asianet and ARRC organized an Asian regional meeting on human rights education attended by representatives of NGOs, schools and the three national human rights institutions in Asia and discussed the need to strengthen human rights education in the formal education system. The meeting expressed the necessity of supporting the activities under the aegis of the UN Decade. Subsequent workshops organized by HURIGHTS OSAKA for Southeast and Northeast Asia respectively held in May and August 1998 mention the importance of the UN Decade in pursuing the development of human rights education programs in schools.

National activities

While regional activities for the UN Decade has not yet developed a system of coordination, much less activities along this line seem to be happening at the national level. Organizations involved in human rights education are either doing their programs separately, or have no program related to the promotion of the UN Decade.

A few countries are attempting to have a coordinated effort of promoting the UN Decade. Only the Philippines and Japan have formally submitted their respective national plans of action to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Indonesia, however has a plan produced by its national human rights institution.

The Philippines' Commission on Human Rights prepared an action plan for the UN Decade as early as August 1994. It aims to achieve 100% human rights literacy, instill human rights values, educate key sectors of the Philippine society on their sectoral rights, and educate all law enforcers, prosecutors, judges, jail officers and the members of the military on the rights of those who may be affected by their official actions. It targets government personnel, members of the academe, and the media; workers; special interest groups like overseas contract workers, peasants, women and children; members of private and voluntary organizations; and insurgents.

In February 1997, the Commission of Human Rights along with the Department of Education, Commission on Higher Education and Amnesty International Pilipinas organized a national workshop called "GO-NGO-Academe National Consultation Workshop on Human Rights Education" which drafted a Philippine Human Rights Education Decade Plan. The document consists of detailed sectoral plans for women, elderly, youth and children; academe and basic education; peasant, labor, overseas contract workers and urban poor; media and professionals; indigenous cultural communities and Muslims; police, military and law enforcers; prisoners, detainees and refugees; and persons with disabilities and mentally disabled. Representatives of NGOs and various government agencies were represented in the whole process of drafting the plan starting with local consultations to the national workshop. The Human Rights Educators Association of the Philippines was formed immediately after the workshop. This body is initially tasked to assist the implementation of the national plan. A NGO initiative has also been started that complements the government-led activities. A workshop was held in December 1996 to gather NGO experiences in human rights education that were presented in the February 1997 national workshop.

In Japan, the government created an office for the promotion of the UN Decade in December 1995 to ensure close coordination and cooperation among relevant administrative agencies and to promote comprehensive and effective measures for the UN Decade. A national plan of action was issued in July 1997. The plan aims to disseminate the idea and value of human rights and thereby create a universal culture of human rights as envisaged by the UN Decade. It provides for education, training, public information, and information activities at every possible opportunity. Activities are provided by the plan for schools, adult education programs, private enterprises, general public and for certain professionals (public prosecutors, correctional facility personnel, immigration office personnel, teachers, adult educators, medical personnel, social welfare personnel, maritime safety personnel, labor administration personnel, fire department personnel, police officers, members of the military, other government personnel). Plans are also provided on issues relating to women, children, elderly, Dowa, Ainu people, foreigners, people with HIV and other infectious diseases, and people who have been released from prison.

Some 15 local governments in Japan have adopted their own plans for the UN Decade along the lines of the national action plan.

There is also a parallel NGO initiative in support of the UN Decade. This initiative takes the form of a channel for transmitting ideas on how to implement the national action plan. The NGOs set up the "Liaison Committee for the Promotion of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education." The major supporters of this committee are the Buraku Liberation League, the Japan Teachers' Union and the National DOWA Educators Association. This committee was created before the government established its own "Headquarters for the Promotion of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education" on December 1995. This government body is formally headed by the Prime Minister.

In 1996, the first national NGO meeting on foreign migrant workers in Japan concluded that human rights education as envisaged by the UN Decade is necessary in countering discriminatory consciousness among many Japanese against foreign migrant workers.

In Indonesia, the National Human Rights Commission drew up a "Strategic Plan for Human Rights Education" in a workshop attended by government personnel, members of the military and police, members of the media, NGO workers, and members of the academe. The plan defines the meaning of human rights education, the strategic issues in promoting human rights education in the country, and the activities that can be undertaken in establishing a human rights education system (to be implemented by a national team which can design human rights education curriculum and implement human rights training). In June 1998, the Commission issued the "Indonesian National Plan of Action on Human Rights 1998-2003" which specifically provides a plan for the UN Decade consisting of:

  1. establishment of a working group to act as a focal point for the UN Decade activities;

  2. determination of priority issues relevant to the UN Decade Plan of Action;

  3. organizing of symposia at the local, national and regional levels to share experiences on the promotion of human rights education;

  4. development and dissemination of instructional materials for human rights education.

In India, while no national plan has been drawn up, the National Human Rights Commission has lent support to NGO efforts at promoting the UN Decade. There is no clear program yet in support of the UN Decade in Australia. But a coalition of NGOs has been pressuring the government to set up a National Committee for the UN Decade to be comprised of relevant federal governments and NGOs with the HREOC as the Chair. There is reportedly not much enthusiasm from the government side on this idea so far.

In Thailand, a group of NGOs has been holding workshops to determine possible activities that will promote human rights education using the UN Decade as a basic framework. Negotiations with the Ministry of Education and the Human Rights Committee in the Thai Parliament are being held to launch multi-sectoral programming for the UN Decade activities. Thai universities (Mahidol and Chulalongkorn universities) have also become involved in implementing human rights education programs.

Many other NGOs in other countries in the region have been using the UN Decade as a rallying point to promote human rights education. But these activities are done more as individual organization activities rather than coordinated and nationwide program.

General trend

Contrary to the fear that the "national structures" will dominate the national initiatives on the UN Decade, much of these initiatives have been made possible because of the cooperation between national human rights institutions or regular government agencies and the NGO and academic sectors. This is the case in Australia, Indonesia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand. Initiatives to promote the UN Decade were started by the NGOs as in the case of Australia and Thailand.

From the regional perspective, the problem lies in the highly uneven interest on the UN Decade among most countries in the region. Majority of the countries do not have national plans of action for the UN Decade. There are therefore no national structures to speak of yet.

And among NGOs doing human rights education work, many are more attracted to promoting the 50th anniversary of the UDHR rather than create longer-term program for the UN Decade. Those that have taken up the UN Decade as a campaign issue have yet to make significant impact.

There is likewise not much news coming from the UN specialized agencies' regional offices about their regional programs for the UN Decade. The UNESCO regional office has not been active it seems.

Next steps

Greater networking with NGOs, government institutions, and UN agencies doing human rights education work is still very much needed to facilitate a better promotion of human rights education with the UN Decade as a rallying point.

One development that the UN Decade may help bring about is closer cooperation between national, regional and international institutions in the region crossing program and issue borders.