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Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume II

Human Rights Education in Schools: The Experience of the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality

Nimalka Fernando

Sri Lankan society has been increasingly militarized since the late 1970s as a result of ethnic conflict and of the Sinhala Youth revolts, first in 1971 and then in the late 1980s. In 1981, our defense budget was a paltry Rs1 billion. In 1987, it rose to Rs11.3 billion. In 1995, it recorded a massive quantum leap to Rs36 billion. The present budget allocates Rs48 billion for defense.

Only few years ago, the UN Human Rights Commission stated that nearly 60,000 persons had disappeared in Sri Lanka. According to information received last year, about 600 persons disappeared in 1995 in the north, where army operations are taking place.

These figures give you the scenario within which human rights education (HRE) has to be developed in Sri Lanka. It has become absolutely essential for human rights organizations to develop education and resource materials to raise awareness among a large section of our population terrorized by the armed forces. If your son were taken away in the night by soldiers whose vehicles do not have registration numbers and who threaten to kill your whole family if you report the abduction, who would dare go to a police station? This is the context within which HRE grew in the 1980s.

Organizations conduct HRE in schools, communities and the armed forces. The following organizations conduct HRE in schools: Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE), University of Colombo Center for the Study of Human Rights (UCHR), Women for Peace, Law & Society Trust (LST), and the Movement for the Defense of Democratic Rights (MDDR).

UCHR, MIRJE, MDDR, LST, Lawyers for Human Rights and Development and Family Organizations of the Disappeared and several other groups also carry out community awareness-raising programs

In the schools, the work of the University Centre for Human Rights covers the following areas:

a) environment and human rights
b) peace and human rights
c) peace-keeping officers and human rights
d) Universal Declaration of Human Rights
e) Women's Rights
f) Consumer rights.

Students are encouraged to visit police stations, prisons and hospitals to facilitate enthusiasm through field work. This program also includes exhibitions and quiz programs, cultural presentations and drama. Students who are about to leave school after facing the GCE (OL) and (AL) comprise the target group. About 25 students are chosen from selected schools. The cooperation of the provincial offices of Education Ministries is obtained.

MIRJE hosted a successful quiz program for school children in 1998. The 1999 program for Human Rights Day on 10 December covers schools in the Eastern Province in order to build peace between communities.

LST has held art exhibitions in schools for the last three years. The cover of the 1997 Human Rights Report is a drawing from one exhibition. LST has also produced several documentaries on remand prisons, on streetchildren, etc.

The Family Organization of the Disappeared hosts exhibitions on the UN declarations, human rights standards, and procedures related to arrests and detention, etc.

Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality

MIRJE is an NGO devoted to the realization the human rights of all people within a plural democratic framework. During the past two years, it has facilitated awareness-raising among students on human rights issues, the constitutional provisions related to human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The continuing war has given the present government an excuse to rule Sri Lanka using the Emergency Regulations and oppressive laws. These laws strengthen the police and armed forces, and restrict and deny the people's democratic and human rights. Hence, it is important to empower our society with the knowledge of human rights values and principles.

In 1983, Sri Lanka pioneered in secondary-school HRE in Asia. However, it has not progressed much due to lack of training and guidance for school teachers, a dearth of facilities, and the existence of human rights violations in the community. Academic competition in schools also discourages students' interest in outside subjects.

However, it is urgent that we strengthen HRE in secondary schools and introduce human rights value education to primary school children. In 1997, MIRJE hosted quiz programs for school children in the Western Province. The response was tremendous. In 1998, MIRJE hosted the quiz programs in the Eastern Province. More than 300 children participated. The Ministry of Education supports this project.

The students who participated in these programs will be encouraged to form Human Rights Education Circles or Societies with the joint participation of teachers.

Guiding Principles

To further promote HRE, we drafted a statement of principles, which guides the development of HRE programs.


The people of Sri Lanka increasingly realize that human rights and human rights duties are important to achieve peace, democracy, ethnic harmony and development.

They call for fundamental changes in education, law, the economy, the constitutional system and the political culture in order to ensure respect for human dignity and equality of different ethnic communities. The link between peace, democracy and development, and human rights is clear in the day-to-day lives of the people. More and more people aspire for a better future using the language of human rights and human duties.

HRE has thus become of paramount importance in schools, universities and among the people at large. HRE should be pursued using both formal and non-formal methods. Teachers, people in media and academics play a significant role in promoting and protecting human rights. The government and NGOs should work hand-in-hand to achieve the objectives of human rights through education.

Aims and Principles

  1. The objectives of HRE must reflect the people's aspirations for peace, ethnic harmony, democracy, good governance and economic development.
  2. HRE is not an end itself. It must promote social transformation based on human rights protection and development.
  3. HRE cannot be promoted in isolation from human responsibilities.
  4. As affirmed in the 1993 UNESCO World Plan of Action on Education, Human Rights and Democracy, HRE must be "participatory, creative, innovative and empowering at all levels of society." Human rights must be brought into all aspects of education and social discourse.
  5. HRE should be inclusive and action-oriented, and empower people and civil society to improve their quality of life and build a culture of peace based on democracy, development, mutual understanding and respect.

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