An Australian indigenous person said in a recently held conference on human rights education that when we talk of empowerment we have to ask the question, who is willing to give up power?
Present societal realities speak of the weak and the strong, the abused and the abuser. They vividly project the unending conflict between those who have and those who do not have power.
In a situation where powerholders, be they government or private persons, dominate with almost impunity those with less power (normally the poor and the disadvantaged sections of society), the related question is, what is empowerment for? Is it meant to counter/confront those who traditionally wield power? Or, is it meant to decrease the power of the latter in order to increase the power of the traditionally weak in society?
Empowerment and human rights education are two sides of the same coin. They are both aimed at realizing human rights and facilitating change in society to obtain justice for all.
Human rights education has been serving a number of functions - to protect one's rights from being violated, to prevent such violations from occurring, and to realize human rights. It is designed at least to minimize human rights violations and widen the space for human rights realization.
International human rights instruments define what human rights are, provide mechanisms through which these rights can be realized, and also provide redress to those whose rights are violated. They identify at the same time those who have the obligation to uphold and realize human rights. Empowerment in relation to the human rights instruments means making people become aware of their rights and enabled to use the available mechanisms for realizing them.
But will these instruments, assuming they are put into effect to a reasonable degree, be able to address the question on who will give up power? In other words, will they give answers to the question on how to change society in order to realign power? Most likely not. They can only provide steps toward this end. Ultimately, it is a question the people as a whole in a given society will have to answer. In the meantime, human rights education will have to continue to support the people's search for an answer. This in itself is empowerment.