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FOCUS March 1999 Volume 15

Pune Conference

UNESCO's Asia-Pacific Regional Meeting on Human Rights Education

UNESCO held its regional conference on human rights education for the Asia-Pacific region on February 3-6, 1999 in Poona, Maharashtra, India. The conference named "Education for Human Rights in Asia and the Pacific" was held as part of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in accordance with the Plan of Action for the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004). The conference generally concentrated on three areas: human rights education in the non-formal education system, human rights education in the formal education system, and human rights education in other sectors such as the media. The tasks and obligations of governments and national human rights institutions on human rights education were also taken up.

More than 150 participants from various countries in Asia-Pacific and Europe were in attendance. Majority however are Indians who were given more opportunity to speak than the other participants from outside India. Most discussions therefore turned to domestic Indian issues rather than regional human rights education questions.

One of the oft-repeated issues in the conference is about the relationship of duty to rights. Many of the Indian participants stressed the need to perform one's duty first before claiming rights. Performing one's duty is seen as a more noble act than just claiming rights which can be seen as self-centered. The issue has not be given enough time for discussion though. Many issues came up. There is a possibility for example to have so much stress on duties which may actually lead to the neglect of rights. As one participant from Indonesia said, there is no problem with the idea of duty because children in schools are always taught about their duties. The problem is that rights are not taught. Education for human rights therefore will not take place unless rights themselves are properly taken up. At the same time, people who due to their low social status as well as poverty have been required to perform duties all their lives cannot enjoy their rights if duties would be continuously emphasized. Much of their poverty can be attributed to the violation of their rights rather than their failure to perform their duties.

This brings the need for promoting human rights education in the context of the massive injustice existing in the region. Violations of human rights are still very much around and structures to address these problems (including human rights programs) are largely insufficient.

The conference ended with a document entitled "Pune Declaration for Education for Human Rights in Asia-Pacific." Because UNESCO has the mandate of promoting education in general, it uses the words "education for human rights" to indicate its objective of making education serve the purposes of human rights.

The declaration reiterates the ideas contained in the "Osaka Declaration" that came out of the recently held regional conference in Osaka. But it also contains several concrete ideas on how to promote human rights education further. Some of these are:

  1. creation of education cells for human rights by governments which shall promote human rights education at all levels and sectors of society;
  2. active involvement of UNESCO Chairs, associated schools,clubs and associations in the region in human rightseducation;
  3. creation of a regional network with a focal point that will ensure the development and exchange of curricula, training methodology, technical support materials, student-faculty exchange programs, field visits, etc.

The declaration likewise suggests to develop human rights education programs not only based on the Plan of Action of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) but also on the UNESCO World Plan of Action on Education for Human Rights and Democracy (Montreal 1993) and the Declaration and Integrated Framework of Action on Education for Peace, Human Rights and Democracy (Paris, 1995).

Representatives of national human rights institutions in India, Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia came to attend the conference along with NGO workers and members of the academe from Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Fiji, Romania, Ukraine, Mozambique, Iran and India.

Plans for follow-up activities are still unclear. The Pune Declaration merely provides a general statement on the need to coordinate various activities on human rights education in the region. This fits the Plan of Action of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education. UNESCO and the local host organizations may have to decide on this soon.

The conference attracted numerous papers on human rights education from the participants. The proceedings of the conference as well as the papers are planned to be published.

The Poona conference is the third regional conference organized by UNESCO. Regional conferences for Africa and Europe have been held last year.

The World Peace Centre (India) along with the Indian National Human Rights Commission, the government of India, Indian National Commission for cooperation with UNESCO (New Delhi) comprise the local hosts for the conference.