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  3. Human Rights Education in Asian Schools
  4. Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume Ⅰ
  5. What Motivated the MDDR to Work out a Human Rights Education Program in Schools?

Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Backnumber

Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume Ⅰ

What Motivated the MDDR to Work out a Human Rights Education Program in Schools?

Chitral D. Perera
Colombo, Sri Lanka


The Movement for the Defense of Democratic Rights or MDDR for most of its existence from 1980 has been mainly working out what is popularly called fire fighting programs. With the change of government in 1994 and the resulting high hopes for a rapid improvement in the human rights situation in the country we thought the time has come to embark on programs which would be basically preventive or pro-active.

   The major problem was the violence - politically motivated violence. Both the government and the political parties which aspired to gain power to govern the country through parliamentary politics as well as those who opposed them resorting to armed insurrection relied on violence. This violence led to and justified equally violent suppression. It was also legalized through very repressive laws essentially curtailing many civil and political rights. The underdevelopment, widespread poverty, debt and the resultant dependency on foreign aid and loans has created a vicious circle.

   Coupled with this is the fact that in Sri Lanka the level of education, specially political awareness is high and the population is young. There is a high level of unemployment of educated Sri Lankans.

   From 1971, armed resistance mainly by the young people has been a constant factor which has determined the human rights atmosphere in the country. At least it is the overt and visible factor.

   The cycle of violence and counter violence, fuelled by socioeconomic factors to which, up to now, no government has been able to find a workable solution has compelled human rights organizations like ours to fight a continuous and unending battle against violation of rights.

   This struggle, which appeared to be a losing one, made us think of alternative strategies. A long-term strategy is to address the problem at its root. The youth, as the section of society which has predominantly been involved in this violence either as victims or as purveyors, need to be the target group.

   Hence the human rights education program to us is a means, not an end in itself.

   But to really understand the relevance of our human rights education programs we need to discuss the human rights situation in the country in slightly more detail.

Human Rights in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been governed under emergency regulations, more or less continuously for more than two decades of the period from 1971 to 1997. Not only has it undermined the rule of the law, but has brought forth a peace-keeping force (the police) which in all probability regards the emergency regulations as the rule rather than the exception.

   Yet emergency rule has not prevented violent armed resistance. In the North and Eastern provinces of the country, the armed conflict between Tamil militants and the armed forces has escalated into a full blown civil war, draining the budget in addition to numerous human rights violations and intermittent massacres of civilians by both the armed forces and the LTTE.

   The rest of the country, in addition to experiencing general destabilization and recurrent attacks by the LTTE, has experienced two wide-spread insurrections in 1971 and from 1987 to 1991.

   Use of violence and intimidation for political aims has become endemic. No major political party can be exonerated. Neither is it likely that in the future they will not resort to violence and intimidation specially during elections.

MDDR - background and work

The generations that have come of age after 1971, that is those younger than 44 years, have seen only these tainted elections and their attitude towards representative democracy through regular, free and fair elections is, to say the least, cynical. 65% of our population is less than 35 years.

   In the North and the East, the young people have experienced only war, waged by an army whose discipline is highly suspect and who are perceived as an alien army of the Sinhalese government. This army is resisted by the even more ruthless LTTE which tolerates no opposition and eliminates, most efficiently, all those who oppose them, specially from among the Tamils.

   The young people have seen in 1977 a party which promised a just society come to power with a 5/6th majority, change the constitution and introduce a near dictatorial executive presidency. Then it perpetuated its rule for 17 years through election fraud including a rigged referendum to extend its rule, massive corruption and violence on a scale never experienced before. This government admitted in its election manifesto that the grievances of the Tamil people are just. Then it unleashed the present war.

   The people also have seen two unsuccessful armed insurrections in the South being put down ruthlessly.

   But the people also have witnessed the heroic and successful attempt by the people to topple the ruling party through election in 1994.

   Unfortunately the party that came to power in the 1994 parliamentary and presidential elections which promised a society free of fear, corruption and war has yet to fulfill those promises. Three years of its six-year term of office have elapsed and what we see today are increasing tendencies among the present rulers to take to the path of violence and corruption that the earlier rulers followed.

   Hence, inspite of the ruthless suppression and killings which resulted in more than 40,000 disappearances, there is a very strong impetus and danger of the young people to take to armed resistance once again.

   MDDR was formed in 1980 when human rights in Sri Lanka was being violated with impunity on a very large scale. In July 1980, using the opportunity created by the general strike (called out by the Joint Trade Union Council), the government locked out and later sacked more than a hundred thousand workers, mostly government servants. Various emergency regulations under the Public Security Act, as well as a draconian law called the Essential Services Act (which virtually banned all trade union activities in the public sector) and illegal gangs of thugs enjoying government patronage were all used to break up the strike.

   Actually the government, in the process of suppressing the strike, also crushed the comparatively strong trade union movement in the public sector. This had a long-term effect on the human rights situation in the country, since the trade union movement had traditionally acted as a bulwark against encroachments on human rights, civil liberties and on social welfare. Human rights NGOs were at that time few and comparatively small.

   MDDR was formed by some of these trade unionists specially from the Teacher Trade Unions as well as a few social scientists and social activists seeking ways and means of filling the vacuum created by this loss. As a voluntary organization, we act as a catalyst in the formation of a broad front which should include trade unions, voluntary organizations as well as political groups, seeking to defend human rights and oppose violations and denial of rights in all its varied forms.

   Our activities for nearly 15 years were predominantly reactive. We sought to challenge violations in courts through our legal aid program. Through our two publications (monthly magazine called Vivarana (Analysis) and a four-page bulletin called Prajathanthra (Democracy) as well as numerous workshops, seminars, lectures we sought to expose violations and their agents and analyze the causes. But the program that was considered to be most important and relevant was what we called Solidarity Action. It consisted of our contribution and participation in issue-oriented campaigns of protest. Issues varied from islandwide campaigns like the peasants' refusal to pay taxes for their irrigation water, the strike by health workers (nurses), struggles like those of peasants in Monaragala to safeguard their land from sugar-multinationals and fish workers against trawling in shallow seas.

   We tried always to build linkages, form networks and bring various organizations together in the uphill task of resisting widespread violations of human rights collectively.

   Two achievements we are happy about is the formation of the human rights coalition (Organization for Human Rights) and the Movement for Free and Fair Elections which monitored elections for provincial councils (in 1993), the parliament and the presidency (in 1994), and the local government in March 1997.

   The large scale and systematic suppression and violation of rights for nearly a decade (1977 - 1989) ultimately spawned equally violent resistance both in the North and East where the population is predominantly Tamil and in the South where the majority are Sinhalese. These violent armed resistances were led by the LTTE and the JVP Youth which predominate in both movements. The JVP-led insurrection of 1987 - 1991 was brutally suppressed. The Tamil insurgency continues unabated. The army has been enlarged to one hundred thousand. Together with the other forces and the police they total more than three hundred thousand, who are also predominantly young men. Thus in Sri Lanka today young men in vast numbers are being led to kill and get killed.

   The impact of this violence and the continuous media exposure of deaths and killings for more than a decade now on the children is not even been debated and discussed with a view to addressing the issue.

   Schools were one of the institutions where the JVP insurgency was keenly felt. At the height of the JVP insurrection, in 1988 and 1989, near anarchy prevailed in the schools specially in the rural areas. The gap between the teachers and the students, (too wide at best of times due to the authoritarian style of education prevalent in Sri Lanka) widened to such an extent that mutual suspicion and caution were the dominant emotions that conditioned the exchange between teacher and student. As brutal suppression gradually exterminated the JVP influence in schools, very harsh and restrictive regulations as well as antagonistic attitudes had developed among the teachers.

   Examination-oriented education system encouraged students to seek private tuition to get through very, very competitive examinations. Results at examinations were also looked upon as the sole criterion of successful education. Thus given the general poor quality of teaching in schools, coupled with the very restrictive atmosphere and the alternate coaching available from fee levying private tutorials all together contributed to make the school a very unpleasant place.

   The school was far from being a democratic institution.


MDDR's main objective of the Human Rights Education program was to make the school a democratic institution, enabling the students to realize their own worth, their rights as human beings and as students.


We had to seek an entry point into the restrictive and closed atmosphere of the school. Human rights is one topic in the subject taught in the schools as Social Studies. Unfortunately though children were very keen on this topic, teachers were rather lukewarm or openly hostile to the idea of developing among students any ideas about their rights. They fear what they call disciplinary problems. The principals of many schools took pains to remind us of the need to emphasize the duties of the students. Also the teachers were very hazy even about the subject knowledge.

   The subject (or even as a topic) is not mentioned in the teacher training curriculum. Though teachers' guides had sections introducing human rights concepts from grade 6 ( 9 to 11 year olds) upwards, and as a special topic in social studies at grade 10 and 11 (15 years and upwards). This was one subject that was more or less ignored by teachers as well as by the educational administrative structure. The subject was included probably as a gesture towards U.N. obligations.

   We utilized this space. Our district organizations recruited teachers willing and interested to teach human rights in schools.

   Our training section, obtaining resource people from the National Institute of Education, the premier training and educational research institute under the Ministry of Education, trained these teachers as trainers. They were supposed to teach and train other teachers to teach human rights in schools mainly for the grades 10 and 11.

   We also used these teachers to conduct human rights seminars for grade 12 and 13 students as well as school leavers, specially after year 13.

   The topics and some articles used for these training programs are attached to this as Annex I.

   These teachers were paid a nominal sum of Rupees 100/- per lesson and they were expected to take at least 2 lessons in a school per month.

   We insisted that two teachers should take one class.

Future Expectations

In this manner, we hope to develop a pool of schools in the 5 districts where we work which could be shown as a pilot project and could be used as leverage in our attempt to pressurize the government and the ministry of education to pay more attention to the teaching of human rights in schools.

   While recognizing that effective action (to improve human rights education in schools and consequently make schools democratic institutions) could only be taken by the Ministry of Education and the Provincial Education Ministries, we felt that merely agitating for improvement in schools will not suffice. We needed concrete examples and results.

   Hence our human rights education program's basic objective is to achieve these concrete results with which to confront the ministry.

Evaluation after two years of experience

We have been able to develop a pool of about 30 teachers who are ready to take a pioneering role in the teaching of human rights in schools and in trying to make the schools places where human rights are respected. The training sessions for these teachers have developed them into pioneering teachers as well as human rights activists and resource people in our other programs like the human rights education program for grassroots leaders, resource persons for election monitoring and voter education program.

   However their effort to expand into other schools and recruit more teachers into the program has not succeeded to the extent we expected. We hope to develop at least 100 teachers at the end of the two-year program.

   Also we have been unable to develop the sense of voluntarism among some of the trainees as well as among the other teachers they have reached through their programs in schools.

   Hence from 1997 the human rights education program has been redesigned.

   While the training of teachers will be continued the target would be to develop pioneer teachers who will utilize all available opportunities within the school, including the teaching of the subject of social studies and try to develop within these schools a heightened awareness about human rights.

   Our district organizations will facilitate the various school activities that the pioneer teachers will initiate in the schools.

   We will also work with and train teacher trade union activists.

   Our expectation for the next 3 years (1997-2000) is to develop 70 such schools in 7 districts of the country.

Annex I

Translations of selected sections of the teachers guide

* Introduction
* List of topics
* Education Ministry circular on corporal punishment.
* Three short articles for reflection included in the guide for human rights teachers.

A. Introduction

I. The foundation of a society respecting human rights must be laid at the school

   Therefore it is not only necessary that the school must be the center or the focal point where human rights are respected. The teachers should be the pioneers in this endeavor.

   Human rights law has been included in addition to the school syllabi in this guide to help the teachers achieve a correct perspective as well as subject knowledge. We have compiled this collection of articles in the form of a booklet - a teachers' guide.

   Those of us who teach human rights need to be committed as well as have a comprehensive understanding of human rights concepts if we are to inculcate true knowledge into children, the future generation.

   We think that the following notes will be of some help to the teachers in this regard. There are certain values to be developed in understanding what human rights are. These values should be developed in us too as teachers of human rights. A culture which respects human rights can be built up only in this manner.

II. Values to be developed in building a new social order

  • The right to information without any hindrance
  • Recognition of the right of expression as extending to everybody
  • Inculcate the habit of listening to others
  • Right to life free from cruel treatment (cruel and undignified treatment, verbally, physically and through procedures)
  • Resist corruption and malpractices
  • Acceptance of the dictum that "all are equal before the law and that the law should be just (not only the laws of the land but customs as well as rules and regulations of the school should be just)
  • The equality of all people, irrespective of race, caste, color, creed, position and class (rich or poor)
  • Recognize that all men have common basic needs
  • Right to organization and its value
III. Creation of a non-oppressive, egalitarian social culture

   Development of these values cannot be confined to teaching of subject matter alone. Emphasis and attention to the development of these values should be given in the teaching of all subjects and also in extra curricular activities. We think it is the duty of the human rights teacher to provide the stimulus and motivation for these changes.

   Authoritarianism and hierarchical system that exists in our schools amount to near dictatorial rule. There is hardly any communication, not only between the teachers and students but also between teachers and authorities.

   The envisaged social culture need to be created in the school society. The school must be a democratic institution. It is only then that teaching of human rights will be meaningful.

B. List of topics

   We use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the basis of human rights education. All member countries of the United Nations have accepted this charter which was passed on 10th December 1948 by the World Body.


  • The background that led to the formation of the charter
  • The reality of human rights and their objectives
  • Human Rights declaration
  • What do we understand by human rights?
  • The preamble to the declaration
  • The text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • The historical background of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    1. English Revolution
    2. American war of independence
    3. The French Revolution
    4. Philosophies that influenced the French Revolution
    5. Russian Revolution
    6. Chinese Revolution
    7. The rights won by the English revolution, American Independence struggle and the French Revolution are known as 1st generation Human Rights. The economic and cultural rights emphasized by the Russian and Chinese revolutions are termed as 2nd generation rights
    8. Absolute rights or fundamental rights and relative rights
  • Human Rights and Humanitarian Law
  • Definition of human rights law
  • Definition of humanitarian law
  • International human rights law
  • Other covenants
  • Children's Rights
    1. Rights enshrined in the covenant (41)
    2. Who is a 'child'
  • Women's rights
    1. Rights and safeguards obtained in the Sri Lankan law
    2. Rules and regulations in the penal code to safeguard women from physical injury
  • Fundamental Rights
    1. Those enshrined in the Sri Lankan Constitution

C. Education Ministry circular on corporal punishment
Circular No. 26 of 1961
21st July, 1991,
Department of Education,
Malay Street, Colombo. 02.

To Principals and Head Teachers of all government and Director managed schools.

Corporal Punishment of school students

   Herewith is sent an extract from circular No. E 36 of 1927.12.21. on corporal punishment, to be circulated among your staff.

for Director of Education.

(An extract from the Circular No. E 36 of 1927.12.21. on corporal punishment.)

   I wish to remind the teachers that there is nothing which exhibits the incompetency of the teacher other than trying to maintain discipline by giving corporal punishment. It is not proper to mete out corporal punishment specially in remote outstation schools where education is taken to be something special.

   Corporal punishment which will prevent a child from attending school or form an unfavorable opinion about the school in the minds of the parents should not be given.

   The regulations laid down here on corporal punishment must be carefully followed.

  1. Corporal punishment must not be given except in instances given below.
    1. Serious cases of misbehavior.
    2. Cases of idling away time where no other type of punishment seems effective.

    Corporal punishment must not be given in cases of negligence of studies. It is only the head teacher who could give corporal punishment.

  2. In mixed schools punishment must be given by a lady teacher in the case of girls. Male teachers are completely prohibited to do so.
  3. Whenever corporal punishment is given, the offense committed and the number of cuts administered must be recorded in a book.
  4. The number of cuts should not exceed 4 and be given on to the palm of the student. Corporal punishment should not be given to very small and weak children. In no case should the hand be used to punish a student.
  5. The cane must not be left on the table. It must be kept away in the principal's office and taken out whenever necessary.
  6. (Foregoing is an extract from the circular on the existing legal position on punishing students. Steps must be taken to inform both students and parents of the contents of this circular.)

D. Short articles for reflection of teachers of human rights

The following are given to teachers to be used as aids to reflections


The boss goads on his men,
   But the leader stimulates his group,
The boss enforces his authority,
   The leader his good will.
The boss instills fear,
   The leader radiates compassion.
The boss always talks of ' I ',
   The leader talks of 'we'.
The boss looks to affix blame,
   The leader tries to identify the mistake.
The boss knows the procedure,
   The leader shows how to do a job well.
The boss denigrates his men,
   The leader employs his men in work.
The boss demands honor,
   The leader has it bestowed on him.
The boss makes work a tedious chore,
   The leader makes it stimulating and a challenge.

2) Arahat Mahinda, son of Great Indian Emperor Asoka, is acknowledged as having introduced Buddhism as well as Buddhist culture to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century B.C. He and five others were sent as emissaries to meet King Devanampiyatissa, the ruler of Sri Lanka at the time.

   The part of his discourse to the king given below is used in our programs.

   "O great king, all creatures in the sky and on the ground have the right, equal to yours, to live and move anywhere on this earth. This land belongs as much to them as to humans. You are but its protector or guardian only."

3) To parents and teachers and for the staff room

Your child learns from his experiences

The child who grows up in an environment where it is customary to find faults, learns to look down on others.
The child who grows up in a society charged with ill feeling learns to be quarrelsome
The child, frequently insulted or criticized will lack confidence to face society.
The child whose society is riddled with jealousy learns to look down on others.
The child will learn patience amongst those who listen to others' view points.
The child growing in a positive environment which encourages his good deeds will develop skills.
The child praised frequently will learn to value others.
The child whose society is equitable will learn to recognize justice.
The child who grows up in a secure environment would be loving and caring.
The child who is praised and gets approval develops self confidence.

He will love the world around him when it is close and warm.

d) Following is the translation of a poem written by Raphael Tennekoon, a famous Sri Lankan poet on the blackboard of a school where he taught, exasperated by the principal's frequent use of the cane. It is also used in our program.

The cane is used liberally in place of guidance,
Inspite of repeated failure.
If the rod is the source of intelligence,
Then cattle will soon be seers of this country.


The Vasetthas said to the Buddha,

"Lord, we have had amongst us a debate on whether one becomes noble by birth or by his actions (kamma). Please clear this doubt among us."

The Buddha said,

   "There are many species of life on earth. The grasses, vines and trees have varying species. So do insects, worms and grasshoppers. Animals small and large belong to many species as do reptiles that crawl or birds that fly. Among humans there aren't any such distinguishing features, either externally or internally, that could separate them into species, either in hair or head, ear or eye. Mouth, nose, lips or eye-brow or stomach are the same. The differences that are among humans are those created by custom and practice and none other."

Annex II

A summary of the Human Rights Education Program done by the training section and District Organizations from July '95 to Dec. '96

1) Model Lessons for year 9-11
   244 classes - 13,558 Students
2) Seminars for year 12-13
   37 Seminars - 3,173 Students
3) Seminars for School Leavers
   7 Seminars - 459 Participants
4) Workshops for Teachers
   25 Workshops - 591 Teachers
5) Training workshops for Teachers
   7 Workshops - 30 Teachers to be trained as trainers