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FOCUS December 2016 Volume 86

Challenges to Human Rights Education

Jefferson R. Plantilla

In December 2015 a female employee jumped off the roof of her company dormitory. She was young, a graduate of a prestigious state university, and employed in the biggest advertising company in Japan. Her death was subsequently declared a karoshi, or death due to overwork.

Months before she died, she tweeted that she had been given more work that forced her to stay overnight for several days. She wrote on social media: “It is already 4 a.m. now, and my body is trembling… I am dying. It is too much. I am exhausted.”1 In another tweet in November 2015 she wrote: “I’m on duty again Saturday-Sunday. I just want to die.” The report states that by “December [2015] she was getting only two hours of sleep a day.”2

Company flap gate records showed that for several days she was in the company premises till the early morning.3   A report states that “labor standards inspection offices around the country recognized in fiscal 2015 that 93 suicides or attempted suicides resulted from overwork.”4 Karoshi remains a major issue of Japanese companies.

CSR at Work?
A significant number of big Japanese companies have declared subscription to corporate social responsibility (CSR). With the introduction of the Ruggie Principles,5 many Japanese companies are now supposed to be giving more attention to human rights, especially for the member-companies of the Global Compact Network Japan.

The company where the young female employee worked was praised in a 2014 survey of Japanese companies’ subscription to CSR by citing its “labs” initiative:6

Advertising and public-relations giant Dentsu promotes employee initiative through “labs”—small groups of employees from different sections of the company, whose joint activities are recognized as part of the employees’ jobs. These labs, made up of people who are professionals at expressing and delivering messages, can turn an issue like human rights into something with a different sort of potential. Dentsu, while nurturing the sort of thinking and posture that form the foundation of moves to create a society embodying diversity, has also achieved solid integration of these efforts with its own business operations. Dentsu’s lab activities, which attract individuals and have the potential to change society, offer a new model of organization.

Dentsu’s website explains its “Respect for Human Rights” policy:
We at Dentsu also consider that the thorough prevention of harassment and protection of employees' human rights are important themes to address to ensure employees can fully exercise their capabilities.

It has a Code of Conduct that states in part: “We will ensure that our work places are safe and create a civilised working environment.”7

It implements human rights awareness training programs that are “run in a systematic manner based on both the employees' hierarchy and occupational fields,” and has an “internal reporting and proposal system Compliance Line put in place in fiscal 2012 in order to prevent in-house actions that violate laws and other regulations.”8

But the Japanese media report several instances of warning being issued to Dentsu by the government’s labor bureau for bad working conditions of its workers including requiring excessive overwork.9

What went wrong? Why has overwork, a longstanding problem in Japanese workplace, remained part of the system? Is this part of the corporate culture of maximizing the use of labor to gain profit? As one report states:10

Dentsu’s taxing regime has persisted since the lean years just after World War II, when then-company President Hideo Yoshida, dubbed the “demon of advertising,” devised his “10 rules of work.”

At the top of the list: “Create work for yourself; don’t wait for work to be assigned to you.” Another says, “Never give up, even if you might be killed.”

Commitment to Human Rights Education

The Dentsu karoshi case illustrates the challenges facing human rights education in relation to institutions that are either obliged or expected to engage in human rights promotion.

On one hand, States, through their governments, are obliged to promote human rights by mere membership in the United Nations. They have repeatedly declared their support for human rights education and, under several UN instruments, committed to implement national human rights education programs.

There have been formal State responses such as enactment of laws and adoption of educational policies and programs on human rights education that support the UN initiatives. But there have also been reports of weak implementation of these laws and policies especially in the formal education system.  A good case is Japan.

On the other hand, companies that have either enrolled in the UN-sponsored Global Compact and other UN human rights-related initiatives on women and children or have publicly declared their respect for human rights are expected to fulfill their commitments. Japanese companies have issued declarations that were made on their commitment to uphold human rights in their business operations. They likewise issued reports on their compliance with their human rights commitment. 11

The Dentsu karoshi case raises the question of corporate commitment to human rights. It raises questions about the extent by which human rights commitment has changed corporate culture, and the effectiveness of interventions in changing the mindset of the corporate officials regarding issues that affect human rights such as conditions of work.

To a large extent, the main question is on the implementation of declarations and commitments made by both state and corporate institutions.

Human Rights Education: A Broader Perspective12
Human rights education has never been the exclusive domain of governments or public educational institutions. It has been the main work of many non-governmental institutions.

The UN initiatives on human rights education starting with 1982 Asian workshop in Colombo created pressure on governments in Asia to work on human rights promotion. The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights seemed to have pushed several Asian governments to act on human rights education. The UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) triggered interest from governments on the issue.

All these benefited the non-governmental institutions involved in human rights education. Their effort was given recognition by governments, and also subsequently by the national human rights institutions. The UN initiatives became the foundation of cooperation among governments, non-governmental institutions and national human rights institutions on human rights education.

But many other initiatives have been launched in forms that may not be seen as human rights education.

World Programme for Human Rights Education
Compared to the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), interest and support in Asia-Pacific for the UN World Programme for Human Rights Education is low. Is this a sign of declined interest on human rights education in the Asia-Pacific?

Several issues can be cited as to why many Asia-Pacific institutions are not using WPHRE as a major platform for their human rights education programs (unlike the situation for the UN Decade for Human Rights Education):

• The implementation of the WPHRE has largely been top down, with very little effort to consult and mobilize groups involved in human rights education in the region;

• There is no focal UN institution in the region (such as the regional offices of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) that could facilitate mobilization of support for WPHRE from Asia-Pacific institutions ;

• There is no regional forum for discussing WPHRE and the implementation of state commitment under it. The annual Asia-Pacific regional intergovernmental workshop has ceased to exist. This regional workshop could have been turned into a practical forum for discussing measures to address specific human rights issues and activities (including human rights education).

However, outside the radar of the WPHRE, there are significant initiatives. Some initiatives are those organized by UN agencies through their country projects on a variety of issues:13 
• Health (World Health Organization [WHO]);
• Human trafficking (United Nations InterAgency Project on Human Trafficking [UNIAP]); and
• Development and access to justice (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP]).

There are also new areas of interest that support human rights education concerning business and human rights, and local governments.
Business and Human Rights
In Southeast Asia, the ASEAN CSR Network (ACN) has a business and human rights program that
supports the adoption and implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Guiding Principles). The Guiding Principles have become the main reference point for all stakeholder groups and propelling and streamlining efforts to address adverse corporate-related human rights impact.

ACN supports the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) regarding its “thematic study on the nexus between CSR and human rights” and has the Human Rights Resource Centre for ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Business and Rule of Law Programme of the Singapore Management University (SMU) as partners.14

This network is an important conduit for companies in Southeast Asia to learn and apply human rights standards in their operations.

At the national level, member-companies of the UN Global Compact and other organizations are likely also undertaking human rights education activities on the application of human rights in company operations.15

Local Governments
Local governments in a number of countries have adopted measures on human rights. These measures provide opportunities for human rights education. Some of these measures are in the form of the following:

a. Child rights and related ordinances – there are likely more than forty prefectural, city and town governments in Japan with such ordinances;16
b. Human rights ordinances – adopted in many cities and towns in Japan and Korea;17
c. Human rights mechanisms – established to resolve human rights issues and monitor Korean local governments’ compliance with human rights commitments, and for child rights issues (ombudsperson) in the case of Japan;18
d. Human rights museums – established to remember those who suffered human rights violations and teach people about human rights;
e. Human rights train stations – places where people converge and have the chance to know/discuss human rights.

These local resources provide opportunities as well as logistical support to human rights education at the local level.

Other initiatives

There are likewise initiatives that support human rights education in the school system, to which initiatives of non-governmental institutions are a key support. The Be-Free Program of the Bahrain Women Association for Human Development is an example. There are several projects under this program that are designed to enable children to learn and be empowered by child rights:19
1. "I’m Strong, Smart, and Safe Child” project on empowering children with essential protection skills;
2. “I am Strong, Smart, and Safe...Despite my Disability" – a special project for the protection of children and teenagers with disabilities, who are considered the most vulnerable;
3. "It is My Right to Understand My Rights" project on promoting the rights of the child in communities, raising awareness on the topic, and applying them at both strategic and operational levels among various segments of society;
4. “Smart +” project on empowering children and adolescents with essential protection skills needed on the Internet;
5. “Color Your Life with Your Choices" on assisting students in addressing various challenges during the course of their academic and social journey;
6. “Me and the Other” project on empowering children and teenagers with skills to deal with bullying, and to protect themselves from it.

The Be-Free program20 includes development of reading materials for children and youth as well as training manuals for adults, and specialized training in both Arabic and English for trainers and specialists, which cover “topics related to child and parent education, various ways of interacting with them with regard to protection skills and personality construction.”

Persistent Issues as Challenges
The current diverse human rights education initiatives in Asia and the Pacific have to contend with vital issues that affect their capacity to achieve the goals of human rights promotion.

A significant issue is continuity. Many initiatives should not remain in the form of projects, with limited goals, timeframe and resources. The objectives of human rights education cannot be achieved in a short period of time, but through sustained efforts over many years.

Another issue is program development, which likewise defines the continuity of any human rights education initiative. There must be continuing review of the programs in order to consider new contexts and issues as well as new ideas; and to improve existing programs.

There is likewise a need for continued recruitment of people who can engage in human rights education. These are people who can help innovate program concepts and implementation. Ideally, they should be people with vision and determination to pursue the difficult tasks of human rights promotion.

Finally, information exchange on materials and experiences among the institutions involved should exist. Mutual learning and cooperation benefit human rights education.

The bottom line remains the same: human rights education initiatives must continue to grow despite difficulties in various forms.

Jefferson R. Plantilla is the Chief Researcher of HURIGHTS OSAKA. He is in-charge of the regional human rights education program of the center.  For further information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.
1 “KAROSHI IN DENTSU: Accuracy of employees’ overtime records in question,” The Asahi Shimbun, 31 October 2016,
2 Mari Yamaguchi, “Latest Dentsu death shows ‘karoshi’ a part of Japan Inc. that toothless laws can’t fix,” Japan Times,
3 “KAROSHI IN DENTSU: Accuracy of employees’ overtime records in question,” op. cit.
4 See www.unglobalcompact.org/library/2.
5 “Suicide of young Dentsu employee recognized as dueThe Tokyo Foundation, Overview of CSR in Japan - Ideals, Intentions and Realities at Advanced Companies, 10 September 2014,
6 The Tokyo Foundation, Overview of CSR in Japan - Ideals, Intentions andRealities at Advanced Companies, 10 September 2014,
7 Dentsu Group Code of Conduct and Associated Guidance,
8 See the website of Dentsu Inc., www.dentsu.com/csr/humanrights/, especially the page on activities
9 “KAROSHI IN DENTSU: Corporate culture fixated on ‘Devil’s 10 principles,’” The Asahi Shimbun, 1 November 2016,
10 See Yamaguchi, op. cit.
11 See Jefferson R. Plantilla, editor, Bridging Human Rights Principles and Business Realities in Northeast Asia, pages 147-157 and its Appendix B, pages 200-202, for examples of surveys on human rights content of corporate reports.
12 This portion of the article draws from the author’s powerpoint presentation (Developments on Human Rights Education in Asia) during the East Asia Human Rights Education Workshop organized by the Amnesty International Hong Kong in 17-19 November 2015.
13 UN agencies/programs support a number of projects at regional and national levels including
• Riikka Elina Rantala, Natalie Drew, Soumitra Pathare, and Michelle Funk, “Right to Health Through Education: Mental Health and Human Rights,” Human Rights Education in Asia-Pacific,  www.hurights.or.jp/archives/asia-pacific/section1/13WHO.pdf;
• International Labour Organization – Asia-Pacific Regional Office, “Human Trafficking Prevention in the Greater Mekong Sub-region,” Human Rights Education in Asia-Pacific,  www.hurights.or.jp/archives/asia-pacifc/section1/Human%20Trafficking%20Prevention%20in%20the%20Greater
• Lisa Rende Taylor and Melinda Sullivan, “Raising the Standard of Ethics and Human Rights Among Anti-human Trafficking Responders in the Mekong Region,” Human Rights Education in Asia-Pacific, 
• Transtec, “Human Rights Education for the Police (Kazakhstan),” Human Rights Education in Asia-Pacific, www.hurights.or.jp/archives/asia-pacific/section1/12%20HRE-Police%20%28Kazakhstan%29.pdf
14 ASEAN CSR Network,
15 Ibid.
16 Many Japanese companies have announced educational activities on human rights, while a number of consulting firms undertake human rights seminars for companies.
17 See Annex A for the list of local governments with child rights ordinance, Isami Kinoshita, “Japanese Movements on Children’s Participation and Child-friendly City,” Human Rights Education in Asia-Pacific,  www.hurights.or.jp/

18 See HURIGHTS OSAKA, “Local Government and Human Rights,” FOCUS Asia-Pacific, www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section3/2014/09/local-government-and-human-rights.html.
19 For information on ombudsperson on child rights of Kawanishi city in Japan see page 89, Northeast Asia Training Resource Material for Human Rights Education, www.hurights.or.jp/archives/other_publications/.
20 Bahrain Women Association for Human Development, “Be-Free Program,” in Human Rights Education in Asia-Pacific,  volume 7, 11-31.

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