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FOCUS June 1999 Volume 16

The Road to Freedom

ustice M.N. Venkatachaliah

Esteemed friend Shri Virendra Dayal, Dr. Kim Dong-hoon, distinguished invitees, delegates to the workshop, ladies and gentlemen. I deem it a privilege to be invited to inaugurate this South Asia Workshop on Human Rights Education in Schools.

When we speak of human rights education, we speak of education in human rights and education for human rights as the means of our social and constitutional emancipation. One of our eminent personalities in public who was imprisoned in the country's freedom movement wrote his diary while in jail. This was some 76 years ago. Chakravati Rajugopalachari said

"we all ought to know that swaraj [1] will not at once, and I think for a long time to come, be better government or greater happiness for the people. Election and their corruptions, injustice, and the power and tyranny of wealth, and inefficiency of administration will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Man will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration of the British. The only thing gained will be that as a race, we will be saved from dishonor and subordination. Hope lies only in universal education by which right conduct, fear of God, and love will be developed among the citizens from childhood. It is only if we succeed in this that swaraj will mean anything. Otherwise, it will mean the grinding injustice and tyranny of wealth. What a beautiful world it would be if everybody were just and God-fearing and realize the happiness allowing others. Yet there is more practical hope for the ultimate consummation of this ideal in India than elsewhere."

This education is for right conduct and for an impersonal love for all mankind. Philosophical foundations of human rights just simply tell us this: that man by reason alone of his birth in the human family, whether one is virtuous or vicious, moral or immoral, capable of contributing his share to the chores of the world or not, he has certain inherent, inalienable, universal right to life, liberty, equality and dignity. These rights are not conferred by the grace of anyone. They are inherent in all human beings. The human rights are, indeed, the touchstone for the ethical and moral content of the laws of a country.

Human society has ceased to be a caring society. All over the world, there is growing sense of hostility, intolerance and belligerence. This Century has witnessed two World Wars, which saw over a hundred twenty million human beings killed. Nearly a hundred million more have died in politically incited struggles where religion, race, ethnic strife have played a major part. In the beginning of the Century, civilian casualty in war was less than 5%. Today, it is over 90%, children being the main sufferers. There are over 50 million homeless refugees in the world. This Century has the doubtful distinction of being one of the bloodiest Centuries in human history. At such troubled times, it is unrealistic to be astonished if political behavior does not pay decorous heed to the values of human dignity. In our country the population of children below the age of fourteen is nearly forty percent of the population. It is a young nation.

The developing countries face increasing pressures of the crudities and inequities of the international order. The slogan "all rights for all" of the Vienna Conference is far from reality. It is an uneasy realization that all poverty, hunger, illiteracy, illness, shelterlessness could be solved if less than 4% of the personal wealth of just 225 richest men in the world is spent annually, and that the rich have resisted this great blessing!

In March 1993, well in advance of the Vienna conference, some of the Asian countries discussed the Western ethno-centric character of the international human rights norms. They argued that their own goals were different; that their concerns were the community as a whole and not merely the insular individual. They spoke of the increasing myth of indivisibility of political and economic rights and of the increasing dichotomy between them. They, echoing the words of Philip Alston, said the economic rights, so far as the developing countries were concerned, are more invisible than indivisible. There is immense poverty in the developing countries. Education in human rights consists in learning those values and practices by which they empower future generations as to how they may hope to live. To live in a good society and a just society. To realize that no economic prosperity can save a society which does not respect the dignity of all individuals as being at the core of all civilizational values and that without such basic human dignity, shared by all without any reservation, no economic prosperity is neither worthwhile or enduring. It is rightly said that an unequal society lives in a constant fear of an impending disaster.

Dag Hammarksjold said that the "road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." It is in the world of action, in the karma [2] of the day-to-day life, in the execution of one's prescribed duties towards society, that the internal purification necessary for deeper acquisition of knowledge will come true. It will not be a mere mass of information. It should transcend the level of information and inform the culture of the inner man a true sense of discrimination. The purification must come from one's own act devoted to the good of society. This the children must learn. Then again, for that knowledge to sublimate itself into wisdom that sense of discrimination must constantly self-introspect the validity of one's actions.

The UNESCO statement on Human Rights Education considers that "the school among other agencies of society has an obligation to play its part fully and effectively in developing understanding of the principles of human rights and in shaping the attitudes and behaviour of future citizens in accordance with them." It adds, "education for human rights is conceived not only as an end in itself but also as a means of developing qualities and creating conditions which will enable people to live peacefully together in a World of closely interrelated nations." The syllabi should cover "the history of social revolutions and independence movements and breakdown from colonisation." It adds, "struggle for human rights through ages or of movements for social welfare and justice will enable pupils to appreciate the size of the formidable task." Human Rights education should "provide sense of pride in human accomplishment." The mind of the child should transcend the stereotype of narrow and sectarian conditioning of racial and religious influences. While the spiritualism of all religions has the element of ennobling and unifying universality, the distortions of ritualism divide. Human Rights education which has the dignity of man as its universal principle helps the child to jettison its prejudices.

Article 26 (1) of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (UDHR) exhorts that "everyone has the right to education." Sub-article (2) says "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups..." The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its Article 13 provides that "... education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." The 1993 World Conference held in Vienna recognizes that "human rights education and training are essential for the promotion and achievement of stable and harmonious relations among communities and for fostering mutual understanding, tolerance and peace." The United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) enjoins upon all governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, professional associations, etc. to promote a universal culture of human rights.

I am deeply beholden to the organizers of this Workshop for giving me this opportunity to share some thoughts on the great excitement of the blessings of education. I inaugurate this Workshop with great pleasure and wish its deliberations every success.

* Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah is the current Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of India. This article is his inaugural address delivered at the South Asia Workshop on Human Rights Education in Schools organized jointly by HURIGHTS OSAKA and the National Human Rights Commission of India (New Delhi, 15-18 October 1998).


  1. Swaraj is roughly translated into freedom or independence.

  2. Karma means physical or mental action.