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  5. Human Rights Education in Northeast Asia:Challenges and Possibilities

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FOCUS June 2008 Volume 52

Human Rights Education in Northeast Asia:Challenges and Possibilities

Anti-discrimination education in Japan, civic education in Mongolia and Hong Kong, law-related education in Taiwan, and the recent human rights education program in South Korea comprise the major features of the Northeast Asian experiences in human rights education in the school system.[1] However, a number of factors, provide a mixed picture of the situation. Educational policies in Japan, Mongolia and Taiwan provide support to human rights education, but a proposed law on human rights education did not pass the legislature in South Korea, while a working group on human rights education in Hong Kong was disbanded. The mere existence of educational policy supporting human rights education does not ensure proper teaching of human rights where there are problems in definition of human rights and/or human rights education, or where the government does not have the political will to implement the policy.

A review of the situation in Northeast Asia revealed a number of challenges, opportunities and measures to support the development of human rights education in the subregion's school systems.


The full development of human rights education in Northeast Asian schools is affected by a number of issues. At the macro-level, the following are some of the major issues:

  1. Globalization and localization
    The current wave of globalization raises the problem of the loss of national (or local) identity while at the same time paving the way for multiple identities (particularly identities of nationals who were born and raised in other countries, and non-nationals who reside in the different countries in the subregion). Concern for the negative effects of globalization (such as the pervasive influence of modern lifestyle among the youth which seemingly aims at promoting individualism, selfishness and crass materialism) prevents the appreciation of ideas (such as human rights) that are part of the global discourse.
  2. Fear of human rights as a Western imperial idea Human Rights is still seen as an European and Northern
    American idea, which promote imperialist domination of the peoples in the subregion. This relates to the idea that "Asian values" differ from those in Europe and America, and human rights are mainly European and American values (that is, human rights are seen as conflicting with traditional values such as Confucianism).
  3. Managing change among powerholders
    Since human rights relate to powerholders in society, particularly those in the government, there is resistance to make the powerholders accountable for human rights violations as well as to change systems towards respect for human rights.
  4. Lack of resources to support human rights education
    There remains the challenge of providing educators in the subregion appropriate teaching materials, textbooks, standards for human rights education, and funds. This situation indicates the poor implementation of human rights education policies of the governments.
  5. Problematic policies on human rights education
    Existing educational policies tend to support a "weak" version of human rights education. The policies interpret human rights education as part of such "educations" as moral education, values education and life education, resulting in the loss of focus on international human rights standards.
  6. Unclear differentiation between morality and human rights
    There is a certain degree of confusion about the concept of human rights among people in the government (particularly in the Ministry of Education) and in the schools. They equate human rights with morality.

    At the micro level, human rights education faces the major challenge of the indifference of students, parents, and teachers, or people in general.

    Students fail to appreciate human rights in relation to their daily life, and are more concerned with the competitive nature of the education systems in the subregion. Teachers resist human rights education due to lack of knowledge and training of human rights, and also due to the lack of appreciation of the value of changing power relations inside the classroom. Some people resist the idea of equality and regard human rights as benefiting only the minorities such as sexual minorities, criminals, etc.
  7. Human rights are often depoliticized such that only social, economic, and cultural rights are addressed while civil and political rights are neglected.


On the other hand, there are opportunities for an appropriate development of human rights education in the Northeast Asian school systems.

Parallel to the lingering view that human rights are Western ideas, there is a noticeable increase in the awareness of people about their human rights. This human rights awareness can be tapped to provide better support for human rights education.

There are initiatives to reinterpret traditional ideas and values to explore how traditional values overlap with human rights values. The traditional Chinese thinking of "respecting the teachers, respecting ideas," for example, can be used to examine ideas that do not seem "traditional" and find out how they relate to the current situation or to understand how they differ from "traditional" ideas. This reinterpretation of a traditional thinking supports the teaching and learning of the idea of human rights.

There are human rights education initiatives that use different approaches, such as the collaboration between schools and civil society, or the use of resources within the local community to teach human rights.

There are institutions in society that support human rights education, such as national human rights institutions, non-governmental organizations, teacher training institutes, and government agencies that help develop human rights education initiatives or improve existing ones.

Feasible responses to the challenges and opportunities

In response to some of the challenges and opportunities in Northeast Asia on human rights education, several ideas were raised that reflect the current initiatives in the subregion:

  1. On globalization:
    - Promote the idea that globalization and localization enrich each other, that there is a need to respect/appreciate/celebrate different identities with- in an embracing global identity as human beings with undeniable human dignity and human rights
    - Use globalization in a positive sense through the use of modern technology to understand the situation and people in other countries in the subregion
    - Promote globalization as a positive influence in people, adding new and useful ideas to what they already have in a mutually enriching process.
  2. On conflict between human rights and other values including traditional ideas/values:
    - Dialogue with postmodernists to review their stance against international principles
    - Promote an interdisciplinary perspective on human rights
    - Root human rights in local thinking and cultures to counter the perception that human rights are merely Western ideas.
  3. On competitive education, redefine the idea of education based on human rights principles. Education as defined in human rights instruments is meant to facilitate the full development of human potentials and learn respect for human rights. In this sense, education cannot be limited to obtaining high marks in order to pass examinations for higher levels of education at the expense of developing other potentials of the students and engaging them in other pursuits (such as participating in community activities that promote human rights).
  4. On educational policies, study the "weak versions" of human rights education in educational policies to identify their strengths and weaknesses. For good educational policies, create a system to monitor their implementation. In case there is no educational policy on human rights education, seek government support for its adoption.
  5. On teachers' role in human rights education:
    - Develop materials that are useful for teachers and crucial in making them teach human rights
    - Raise teachers' issues in addition to other human rights issues in schools
    - Motivate teachers.
  6. On relationship between schools and the authorities in society:
    - Disseminate challenging experiences that deal with issues such as power/authority
    - Promote the use of issue-based approach - using experiences of resolving real problems in schools by finding a balance between rights and power.

In relation to different players in society:
- Non-governmental organizations - promote the continuation of their programs on teacher training for human rights education
- Teachers groups/unions - support their effort to promote human rights education, make them become aware of the idea that the school is part of civil society, enhance their participation in the initiatives of the civil society on upholding human rights
- Business community - in getting its support for human rights education, promote corporate social responsibility under the Global Compact scheme of the United Nations, use the 3Ps (planet, people, profit) framework as an entry point for promoting human rights, and promote existing fair trade systems.

Possible steps

As possible steps to promote human rights education in Northeast Asia, the following are suggested:
- Introduce good national human rights educationframeworks to counter the "weak versions" of human rights education in educational policies
- Collect human rights education examples (experiences) and analyze them in terms of strengths and weaknesses to be able to develop
* reference standards
* examples of adaptation of materials produced in
*their countries/regions
* human rights syllabus for each (compulsory) subject in the school curriculum (using integration approach)
- Promote the use of the United Nations' World Programme for Human Rights Education (WPHRE) first phase plan of action as an over-all framework in analyzing the current national/local human rights education initiatives
- Create a mailing list to continue the exchange of information among educators engaged in human rights education; provide internet-based interaction among students
- Provide avenues to demonstrate good human rights education experiences by students
- Support evaluation study on impact of human rights education programs on both students and teachers
- Develop a network that collects/puts together materials and other information on human rights education programs to facilitate exchange/collaboration among countries
- Organize training activity(s) for the subregion on particular area(s) of human rights education
- Showcase a few good (such as Taiwan and Mongolia) and bad human rights education experiences through subregional activities (such as country visits) to know them more in-depth
- Advocate for a human rights education policy development - subregional campaign by the institutions involved - and link with individuals who are involved in policy development
- Continue the dialogue on universal values (human rights) and particular values in order to identify core values on diversities within unities
- Seek United Nations (OHCHR, UNESCO, UNICEF) support for activities in

Experienced educators from South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Mongolia undertook the review of the situation in Northeast Asia. They met in a meeting organized by HURIGHTS OSAKA on 11- 13 March 2008 in Osaka city. This meeting was a follow-up to the 2006 "Osaka Conference on Human Rights Education - Dialogue Among Asian Educators," organized under the aegis of the United Nations' World Programme for Human Rights Education. The 2006 conference brought together educators from various countries in South, Southeast and Northeast Asia, who discussed the need to support the development of human rights education through various means including the sharing of ideas and experiences within and among countries.

For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA


1. This Northeast Asian situation is qualified by the lack of discussion on the situation of human rights education in the school systems of the People's Republic of China as well as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. An invited participant from the People's Republic of China was not able to attend the meeting.

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