Human rights education in schools is not a new terrain in Asia. In Japan, the government adopted as early as 1965 a DOWA education policy to stress the importance of equality and development of the consciousness against discrimination. In Sri Lanka, a program for the teaching of human rights has been existing since 1983. In 1987, the teaching of human rights in schools became a requirement under the new Philippine Constitution although experimentation in the teaching of human rights at the primary school level started years earlier.
Recently, in India, materials for human rights education in schools were developed while existing school textbooks are being reviewed to eliminate portions that contradict human rights principles and introduce new portions discussing human rights. The Cambodian government, on the other hand, has been supportive of the NGO initiative on this issue.
These experiences can be characterized as having the following elements:
- non-governmental organizations and government-supported education bodies have been involved in many cases;
- cooperation between the non-governmental organizations, government education agencies and the schools is seen as a key element;
- old programs and materials are being reviewed while new ideas in the teaching of human rights are being developed and tested;
- different levels of education (primary, secondary, university and graduate levels) are involved in these initiatives;
- attention is given to the methods of teaching as an important aspect of the initiatives;
- training programs have been set up to increase knowledge and skills among the participating teachers; and
- human rights education is given a much broader meaning than just a mere learning of human rights laws.
This situation is certainly a major development in the human rights field. But this does not mean that human rights education in schools has reached a significant influence in the Asian region. It has remained a minor educational activity that needs as much support for material and human resource development as possible. Many initiatives have not yet been widely implemented in many countries; some are still being done on project basis.
A major concern is on teacher training. One of the major obstacles to human rights education in schools is the lack of opportunities for teachers to study and practice new ideas in teaching human rights. Past experiences show that the very atmosphere in schools create an attitude of disrespect for human rights. The authoritarian style of teachers, for example, is not a model for understanding the practice of human rights. Teachers therefore may need to look more closely at a concept of human rights education that embodies the very idea of respect for human rights in both knowledge input and practice. A teacher training program may dwell on the following areas: concept of human rights; human rights curriculum development; preparation of materials for teaching human rights; and participant-centered teaching methods.
Changing the mindset of government bureaucrats regarding the understanding of human rights and human rights education is another major concern to human rights educators. There seems to be a persistent perception that human rights is an anti-government concept and therefore useful only for those who oppose the government. Closely related is the sense of insecurity on the part of the teachers that make them think that human rights education would lead students to simply assert their rights in schools and undermine their authority. Such a wrong understanding of human rights and human rights education hinders the adoption/development of programs for teaching human rights.
Resistance to human rights education in schools among the teachers because of fear that it adds more burden to their already heavy teaching load is also a major concern. This reaction is expected of teachers who have not been oriented on the trend toward integrating the teaching of human rights into existing subjects rather than creating separate human rights subjects. A basic requirement is a better appreciation of the meaning of human rights and its relevance to various subjects in school from civics to mathematics.
It has also been suggested that a review of the concept of human rights education itself is necessary to clarify the vision for human rights education.
In terms of needs, a major area is in the sharing of materials, pedagogical experiences, and expertise in teaching human rights. A system for sharing these resources can help bring existing resources to groups in countries that are starting to set up human rights education programs for schools. Teacher training programs, teaching material and human rights curricula development activities are very important resources that can be shared between groups and schools within Asia and the Pacific. Groups in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and the Philippines have teacher training programs that have been implemented over a number of years already. Their experiences can be good case studies for others to learn. The experience in Korea presents the link between human rights education and women's studies programs in universities.
Systems and materials contextualized in an Asian setting are more relevant to many Asian countries. At the same time, developed systems and materials have greater chances of improvement as ideas and experiences are shared among those who are deeply involved in human rights education in schools.
Needless to say, expertise already exists in the region that can be used by interested groups and schools. The example of the Kunijima Highschool in the city of Osaka, Japan shows how human rights education is weaved into the curriculum of a school. The Kunijima system employs human rights principles in every aspect of the school affecting students (as the center of the educational process), the teachers (as facilitators), and the process of learning (one that promotes group activities, sharing of/speaking out about problems, self-discovery, and individualized curriculum). The Sri Lanka experience shows the need for constant review and development of the curriculum to assure that human rights principles are properly incorporated in the curriculum. The Philippine and Cambodian experiences emphasize the importance of teacher training at a massive scale to be able to assure greater acceptance of human rights teaching. The Indian experience on the other hand shows the importance of government education bodies taking the initiative (in cooperation with other institutions such as the national human rights commission) to support the development of programs and materials for teaching human rights.
Creating a system for sharing these resources within the region is the consequent challenge.
Any activity however need to have a clear sense of direction. Where will all these human rights education work in schools lead to? It is thus suggested that a shared vision for human rights education will be helpful in creating a system for interaction and distribution of materials among human rights educators in schools.
There is also a need to emphasize the perspective on human rights education as an "open process of knowing" various views, sensitive to the cultures where the education activity is taking place, and conscious of the history of relations among countries and the visions of peoples. The human rights education approach must be practical (rather than merely academic exercises). It may also be secular in certain cases (avoiding the discussion on religion which may cause misunderstanding).
HURIGHTS OSAKA has been promoting the idea of using the cultural values-human rights framework for human rights education in schools. Simply put, this framework means that the understanding of human rights can be made richer by relating the same to the positive and deeply-held values of the community such as respect for life, freedom from oppressive systems, importance of peaceful resolution of conflicts, protection for the weak, disabled and the old, and even respect for the environment and other (non-human) life forms.
This framework is similar to the efforts in some countries in the region that use culture to address social injustices (as in the case of India) and to bring back positive values among people traumatized by internal conflict and oppressive government (as in the case of Cambodia).
There is however a clear understanding that there are negative aspects in every culture. One usual example is the caste system in South Asia which survives even among Buddhist religious groups despite assumed knowledge of Buddha's rebellion against unequal treatment of people. This is the case of Sri Lanka. It is therefore important to be careful in using culture in relating it to the promotion of human rights. This follows the principle of "selective assimilation, selective resistance" developed by Gandhi in linking old traditions with new, modern ideas. The role of culture in the discrimination against women and girls is also cited as an example of negative aspect of culture.
There is also the principle of interrelatedness which demands that a discussion on human rights should cover different aspects of human existence. And thus, again, the respect for life and for non-violence should not only extend to human life but to other life forms as well. It was also stressed that old culture should not be treated as inferior. Traditional cultural values can be reviewed and related to modern ideas such as human rights. The old one can be fused with or strengthened by the new one as they form one interrelated whole.
In looking at cultures, the principle of "digging deep into one's well" is necessary to be able to see how at the core of one's own culture one finds consonance with other people's cultures. This leads to an understanding of the interrelatedness of cultures. This is also related to the idea of inter-cultural values which may find relevance in a multi-cultural society such as in Sri Lanka.
It is also important to stress that human rights education activities are being done in a changing environment. The recent call by the leaders of Malaysia and China to review the Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens the ground for more thinking on why human rights should remain universal and indivisible as they are. The call of a private institution, which has former Presidents and Prime Ministers as members, for the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities opens another aspect of the human rights debate that looks at the issue of responsibility especially in the light of local cultures. Lastly, the call by Ms. Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, while she was still the President of Ireland, to enrich the human rights discourse by explicit reference to non-western religious and cultural traditions brings out the importance of the link between culture and human rights. She pointed out that by "...tracing the linkages between constitutional values on the one hand and the concepts, ideas and institutions which are central to Islam and the Hindu-Buddhist tradition or other traditions, the base for support for fundamental rights can be expanded and the claim to universality vindicated..."
The challenge of human rights education that is relevant and sensitive to the local contexts is more than just understanding human rights laws but facilitating deeper reflection on own legal, social, political, economic and cultural milieu.