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FOCUS September 2000 Volume 21

Mid-term Review of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) completed a review of the first half of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) in August this year. A report on the review is now submitted to the UN General Assembly's 55th session.

The review covered activities undertaken by governments, intergovernmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations.

The review process took several forms. Official government reports sent to the OHCHR comprise the first source of information. A survey was undertaken in April 2000 addressed to governments, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs. This was complemented by an internet forum that covered the basic issues on the implementation of the plan of action of the UN Decade.

To help prepare the report, an expert meeting was held in Geneva on 7-9 August 2000 "to review the results of the global survey and of the on-line Forum; enrich those results with the experts' experience and advice; consolidate the mid-term evaluation report; suggest recommendations for further action to be taken by all actors at all levels (national/local, regional, international level) in the coming years; and advise OHCHR on strategies to adopt for the rest of the Decade." The meeting was attended by some of the most active UN Decade players and experts on human rights education.

The review recognizes the fact that a lot of information on UN Decade-related activities are not covered for a variety of reasons. Many organizations are not aware of the review process and thus had no chance to participate in it. It is possible also that some organizations who knew the review process failed to send the requested information on time. Many governments and intergovernmental organizations failed to respond to the questionnaires.

One major principle highlighted in the review is that human rights education is an obligation assumed by States when they became party to some of the human rights instruments. This treaty obligation is supplemented by declarations adopted by UN-organized conferences. The 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action recommends the adoption of a UN decade for human rights education.

The UN Decade therefore highlights the achievements of the major players in the human rights education field, and reminds governments of their commitment to "strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms."

Despite the limitations of the review process, some general trends in human rights education programs and recommendations were identified.

General trends

The responsibility for human rights education is vested in a wide variety of national entities. The effectiveness of their activities varies greatly. However, the formal structure of such entities does not guarantee their effectiveness.

Many human rights education activities exist in almost every country with or without national plans of action. A plan, however, helps enhance coordination, coherence and effectiveness. But in general, the governments responding appear to be reluctant to adopt too specific or rigid a plan of action. However, it is clear that there is a strong correlation between the degree of participation by various sections of society in the development of a plan and its effective implementation.

In many countries, mutual lack of trust between the Government and NGOs is experienced. Working together for human rights education can help overcome such distrust.

The review illustrates the wide range of human rights education activities involving many different groups. Many of those activities however appear to be one off efforts with little or no follow up, e.g. conferences and seminars without an overall strategy. This may put into question the long-term impact of these activities.

Negative misconceptions about human rights by government officials and the general public constitute a major obstacle. This negative perspective needs to be addressed by presenting the positive aspects of respect for human rights.

While the respondents focussed exclusively in their replies on laws relating to establishing a mandate and obligation to provide education, several other laws are of considerable importance. Laws restricting education, or justifying discrimination in access to education, restricting media, restricting human rights educators, or repressing human rights defenders are of crucial importance as well. Generally speaking, the responses do not indicate a clear correlation between legislation which supports human rights education and the actual incidence of human rights education activities.

At a policy level, the questionnaire sought to ascertain, in respect of formal education in schools, whether there is any relationship between policies that make pre-school, primary and secondary education free and/or compulsory and the actual provision of human rights education in schools, at those levels. The responses seem to negate any such relationship.

Except from one country, no responses indicate treatment of human rights as a separate subject in schools. Very few examples exist of human rights being treated as a separate subject at university level except in the programmes of specialized human rights institutes.

The evaluation of human rights education in schools is taking place only as part of the regular evaluation within the school or the ministry of education. Clearly there is no special evaluation of the human rights education component.

The UN Decade has raised awareness of the potential for human rights education through extra-curricular activities. But examples so far involve activities mainly confined to the schools themselves. Scope for extra-curricular activities that reach out from the school to community and family remains largely underutilized.

Human rights education aimed at professional groups is reported with regard to law enforcement, administration of justice and prison officials, and less so with regard to officials working in ministries relating to the economy and social welfare. This indicates a failure to appreciate the important role that government officials working on issues related to economic and social rights assume.

Human rights education in pre-service and in-service training of professional groups is limited. This could be due to the fact that many presuppose that human rights education only relates to the education of children and young people, forgetting that education is a life long process. Government officials need throughout their professional life to be aware of all legal reforms, particularly those concerned with human rights.

Overall recommendations (at all levels)

Human rights education concepts and methods

Values-oriented human rights education alone is insufficient. Human rights education should include an accountability element and make reference to human rights instruments and mechanisms of protection

Creative participatory teaching methods, relevant to people's lives, should be used and human rights should be introduced as a holistic framework

Gender sensitivity should be emphasized in all education activities

Enabling environments for human rights educators (including information, training, facilities, equipment, and protection from harassment) should be ensured

Priority should be given to sustainable approaches (training of trainers, integration of human rights in all relevant training/education curricula, etc.)

Human rights education contents

Human rights education activities should include the following issues:

  • economic, social and cultural rights
  • good governance
  • impunity (and International Tribunals)
  • human rights defenders (and the related UN declaration)
  • racism and discrimination

The link between development and human rights should be stressed

The universality and indivisibility of human rights should be emphasized

Human rights education programmes

Attention should be paid to ensure that both human rights education needs of children and young people, as well as adults, are met

Interaction among children and youth belonging to different ethnic communities should be promoted

Human rights education should be promoted in all forms of adult education

Human rights education efforts aimed at the following targets should be increased:

  • local government officials, community leaders (secular and religious)
  • legal and para-legal service providers
  • rural populations and illiterate people
  • women
  • vulnerable groups such as people with HIV/AIDS, people with disabilities, minorities, the elderly
  • non-state actors, such as multi-national corporations, trade and financial organizations (WB/WTO/IMF etc.)

The use of the UN Decade as a tool for mobilization and establishment of partnerships should be increased

Evaluation, research and monitoring

Evaluation and long-term impact studies and research should be undertaken in order to better understand what approaches work best and why, and in order to elaborate evaluation criteria. Any human rights education project should include the development of indicators to evaluate qualitative impact

Mass media and freedom of information

Mass media strategies to effectively promote human rights should be developed. Such strategies might include the following elements:

  • media focus on human rights monitoring
  • support to increasing use of the media by NGOs
  • training of media professionals on human rights protection mechanisms
  • involvement of the artist community
  • use of "social marketing" techniques, when appropriate

Law reform, policies and practices that improve access to information and strengthen mechanisms that facilitate the flow of information, freedom of the press and other media should be promoted and implemented more vigorously

The possibilities offered by new information technologies in furthering human rights education should be better exploited, and access to such technologies should be increased. Existing programmes supporting the development of human rights education projects on-line should be strengthened and new programmes implemented


Organizational capacity-building in human rights education should be fostered

Funding for human rights education should be increased

Research on human rights education-related issues should be enhanced within academic institutions and human rights institutes

When appropriate, alliances with the business sector should be developed in support of human rights education.

This article is based on the draft report on the mid-term review of the UN Decade. The final version of the report will be submitted to and approved by the UN General Assembly in its 55th session.