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Human Rights and the Students

The Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (HURIGHTS OSAKA) held the second subregional workshop (Northeast Asia) on human rights education in schools in Seoul, Korea from 15 to 18 August 1998.

HURIGHTS OSAKA sought the cooperation of the Graduate School of Public Policy, Sogang University, Seoul in holding the workshop.


Representatives of various institutions in People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan attended the workshop. The participants were composed of school teachers as well as representatives of teacher training institutes and non-governmental organizations.


The workshop started with presentation of experiences from People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. The presentations highlighted the basic features of existing human rights education programs in the schools.

The People's Republic of China report was presented by Professors Xia Yong of the Institute of Law, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and Professor Wan Exiang of the Wuhan University Law School in Hubei province. Professor Xia, among other issues, discussed a research conducted in China about people's consciousness on human rights. He said that the results of the survey done in 5 provinces in China reveal very important issues related to human rights education, such as:

  • 50% said that they learned about the right to vote from the study of law;
  • people have strong consciousness of individual rights especially relating to the right to marry, the right to life;
  • many people do not consider political rights as being inherent to them as human beings.

He is of the opinion that human rights education should equally emphasize human duties especially in relation to respect for the rights of others.

He presented the project of his office regarding the publication of materials on human rights. One of them is an encyclopedia on human rights that took six years to produce, and that involved the participation of about a hundred scholars. He also mentioned the plan to produce more simple materials that can be used in the rural areas.

Professor Exiang presented a general view of the context of human rights education in China. He said that China has changed a lot during the last decade. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has been ratified recently while the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is being prepared. The government is very active in promoting human rights education. National programs in universities are supported by the government. A national association on human rights studies has been formed and human rights materials have been published (such as the encyclopedia on human rights and many other books). Thus the present situation is very appropriate for human rights education.

He then described the 3-stage human rights education program in the Wuhan University law school. These stages are:

a. undergraduate program - there is a general course on international law which includes two chapters on human rights (basic human rights concepts, international conventions, issues related to Chinese context). Cases decided by the European Human Rights Court are also discussed. Emphasis is made on the application of the principles in the Chinese context - the present situation, the Confucian tradition and Sun Yat Sen's Three People Doctrine (one of them is about people's power). Serious and heated discussions among the students always occur in this course.

b. masteral degree program -there are independent courses called international human rights law and international human rights jurisprudence. These are required courses for all students majoring in public international law. International human rights law course covers the different regional human rights systems (Africa, Europe and America). While the international human rights jurisprudence course takes up the various types of governments (Marxist, etc.) and jurisprudence in different countries in Asia (including Hong Kong). Each system is studied to be able to find out which is more appropriate to the Chinese context.

c. doctorate degree program - this is the first of this type of program for international human rights law in China. Several students are enrolled under this program. Currently, one student is studying the procedures and legal mandate/powers of the international human rights commissions and another the European human rights systems.

Books about human rights (International Human Rights and Human Rights Theory and International Human Rights) are used as textbooks in the courses. A new publication (Review of Cases from European Human Rights Court) is being used as a casebook by students studying human rights litigation. Research projects are also being undertaken with support from the Chinese government. Materials are also published such as Human Rights Theory and Practice and different publications on disadvantaged people and human rights (e.g. women, children). The publication on children is being distributed to middle schools though the terminology used is not human rights. The words human rights are still not very much understood by many people. But the words women's rights, child rights, rights of the disabled are used. Also, students are taught the idea of serving the disadvantaged people in society.

He also mentioned the program of the Centre for Protection of Rights of Disadvantaged Citizens based in Wuhan University. It is functioning as a NGO and serving as a facility for students to practice what they learn about human rights in the university. Aside from providing direct services to women, children and other disadvantaged groups, the cases handled by the center are featured in mass media from newspaper to television (such as drama programs). The audience cover not just those in mainland China but also those in Taiwan.

As a last point, he asked what is the best way for human rights education? He opined that one way is to teach not just the students but the whole populace. Education through case study is one of the most effective ways because it tells people how to protect their rights through the existing legal system. The other way is to train human rights educators on human rights work.

For the schools, it is important to note the level of understanding of students to determine what materials and issues should be taught. The use of drawings for small children is very interesting. Though the language is not human rights, they relate to human rights (such as the use of the words human dignity). It is also important to find ways to maintain the Asian character of human rights education (by emphasizing the Asian context) rather than merely following the example of Europe and Northern America.

The Hong Kong experience was presented by Ms. Tsz Yan Li and Ms. Grace Wai Chuen Tsui who reported on some of the existing efforts to educate children on human rights. They emphasized that the Hong Kong government has not been supportive of the teaching of human rights in schools, thus representing a major problem hampering the development of human rights education program in schools in Hong Kong. Ms. Tsui however reported that while human rights is not a formal focus of education in schools, human rights education still exists in schools in Hong Kong.

While the formal school curriculum offers many opportunities for teaching human rights, English language teachers do not usually teach human rights for the following reasons:

a. most of them do not see human rights as an important issue;

b. human rights is seen as belonging to the broader subject of civic education;

c. language education curriculum is already heavy; and

d. the students' English language capability is not good enough to discuss serious subjects such as human rights.

Ms. Tsui also mentioned the experience of organizing a seminar on human rights as part of the activities of the Secondary School English Teachers Association in Hong Kong. From among the 500 or so secondary schools, 10 teachers joined the seminar that included visits to Amnesty International office. Apparently most teacher-members of the association considered that visiting the office of Amnesty International was too politically sensitive. However, those who took part in the seminar found it a valuable activity.

Human rights education in extracurricular activities seem to be easier to achieve. By doing community service as girl guides, for example, the students develop an awareness of the need to respect the rights of people in the community who are relatively deprived (such as the elderly and the migrants from mainland China), and also develop a sense of the need to help them obtain what they are entitled to as members of the community. In this kind of activity, human rights are taught even without mentioning the term human rights.

Professor Mei-ying Tang of the Department of Elementary Education, Taipei Municipal Teachers College, presented the experience in Taiwan. She reported on the activities of a teachers group in Taipei regarding research on the teaching of human rights in schools. The group researches on four levels of education: preschool, primary, secondary and university. Most of the research work concentrates on curriculum development on human rights education. But at the university level, the research focuses on the opinion of undergraduate students on human rights.

The group has been able to get support from the National Science Council for the research work and the Bureau of Education for the curriculum development and training program. As a result of the effort of the group, the core concepts of human rights are to become part of the social studies and will be included in the new curriculum statement on social studies in 2001.

The group promotes the idea that human rights education is a value-based activity that should allow the students to experience and explore the values of democracy, social justice and respect for human rights. The students are made to study daily life conflicts and participate in group work which make them challenge and reconstruct values and beliefs. Learning a set of values helps the students to identify problems such as racism, sexism, and other denials of the values that comprise and sustain human dignity. The main objective of this idea is to develop a human rights culture.

The group also promotes the study of human rights laws and declarations as another part of human rights education. These documents are studied in light of the everyday school life of the students. The main objective is to train the students in applying human rights concepts in concrete situations including that of the school.

To implement these ideas, the group holds workshops for teachers. The workshops are meant to develop shared values and reflection on the theory and practice of human rights education among the teachers. They are tailored to equip the teachers with the sensitivity and the skill of dealing with human rights issues in daily life, including school life. The program of the workshops consists of knowledge of human rights laws and training on materials and methodologies for effective teaching and learning of human rights in schools. Participants, though recommended by their respective schools, have to freely choose to join the workshops. The group uses an approach that provides an opportunity for participant-led activities and small group discussions that permits maximum participation and encourages cooperation, tolerance, decision-making and commitment. It is emphasized that education for human rights and education per se cannot take place in a context that is not democratic or not respectful of human rights of both students and teachers. Human rights concepts are thus explicit in the conduct and process of the workshops.

There is also a summer workshop program for curriculum development. Participants create materials for teaching human rights that can be published and disseminated to every school in Taipei area. The participants translate human rights documents (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child) into an easy-to-understand language, write the history of the development of the concept of human rights, and develop teaching materials.

The problems in implementing the program have been identified as follows:

a. clarification on the relationship between cultural values and human rights;

b. inadequate time for discussing problems of teaching human rights in schools and its status in the integrated curriculum;

c. lack of flexibility in the school regulations on an overloaded and academic-oriented curriculum (especially at the secondary level); and

d. finding the ways to create the appropriate school environment for teaching human rights.

Ms. Mariko Akuzawa, a researcher and lecturer and Mr. Shin-ichi Hayashi of Multicultural Education Study Group, Osaka Prefectural High School Dowa (Human Rights) Education Association presented the report on human rights education in Japan. They both discussed Dowa education. Ms. Akuzawa pointed out that there is a need to review Dowa education in light of the survey finding which indicates that people in the places where Dowa education is being done retain their prejudice against the Buraku people. And there is even evidence of people thinking that Dowa education has existed long enough and thus it need not be continued.

Ms. Akuzawa cited the need to improve the teaching methods in Dowa education so that students will find the issue of discrimination against Burakau people interesting and relevant to their lives. It seems that the present approach of knowledge-centered teaching is not effective. At the same time, the over-eagerness of teachers to teach equality forces the students to be politically correct but do not encourage them to have critical thinking and freely express their opinions. Thus the need to further extend the use of participatory methodologies which offer students para-social experience that train them in democratic skills such as expressing opinions, listening to others, discussing and solving problems together in a cooperative climate.

Mr. Hayashi on the other hand presented the experience of an association of teachers that works to improve Dowa education. This association engages in research especially on the experiences of teachers in improving the Dowa education. Research findings are published and the association also engages in lobbying for changes in the systems in education (such as in the requirements for scholarships that tend to discriminate against 'non-excellent' students). The association also extends it work on issues affecting foreign students in Japanese schools.

The association is thus trying to help improve the education system as a whole by promoting changes in regulations, teaching methodology, and course content. It has thus become a vehicle for teachers who want to improve the education system.

There are problems to be faced though. The local government, due to weak economic situation, is reducing its support to the association. There is also a serious challenge from teachers who hide historical facts about Japan's role in the Second World War.

The Korean report was composed of two presentations. One was from Mr. Won-il Heon of Myonmok Middle School. The other was that of Professor Soon-won Kang of Hanshin University. Mr. Heon pointed out the problems facing the Korean education system.

One is the examination/competition-oriented education system, and effect of which is the discrimination against students (who constitute the majority) who cannot enter universities due to their failure to pass the entrance examinations. They are considered 'problem children." With such treatment, they are likely to become rebellious or turn out to become social delinquents. Such students are subjected to violent punishment for failing to follow school rules. Further, teachers do not discuss social realities and instead focus on how to enable students pass examinations. Some students who do not perform well in school commit suicide.

Two, schools have too many students but insufficient facilities. In a situation where students are required to wear uniforms, they lose their identity as individuals. Teachers see them generally as indistinguishable from one another.

Three, competition among teachers results from competition among students. This situation provides the reason for controlling the teachers and the education system.

Teachers who protest this situation (by calling for the humanization of education) were severely suppressed by the government in the past. Teachers were also not allowed to exercise their freedom to form their own associations. But with the recent recognition by the government of the Korean Teachers' Union which is independent from the government-supported official teachers' union, there is more room for the government to help promote human rights education in schools.

Prof. Kang reiterated the oppressive situation of students in Korean schools. She also discussed the violation of teachers' human rights. Their problems include the restriction on forming own union, the strict requirement of following national teaching guidelines which restrict independent efforts to improve teaching, requirements of administering examinations to the students, large number of students per class, inability to be more creative in teaching due to examination-oriented system, and teacher evaluation that result in submissiveness to superiors.

Parents are also affected by this bureaucratic and centrally controlled education system. Abuse of their children is not redressed due to lack of avenues for seeking redress of grievances. And because of the competition, they often resort to bribery to make sure their children pass (something only rich people can enjoy doing). They also are forced to supervise the study of their children and thus force them to compete. And because of Confucian belief, parents subscribe to the thinking that students must always follow their teachers. This diminishes their role in contributing to the development of the education system.

This situation greatly inhibits the prospect of teaching human rights in schools in Korea. But despite these problem, there are teachers who try to teach human rights through moral and civics education. Human rights issues are combined with these subjects. This is the opening through which UNESCO and NGOs can work with teachers to promote the teaching of human rights in schools.

Prof. Kang also mentioned that human rights is being taught at the university level in a few universities. She added that peace education is also being taught, and human rights issues are taken up here.

The development of materials on human rights education such as teaching manuals are needed. It is also important to contextualize the teaching of human rights by using terminologies that reflect the Asia-Pacific situation more. Most of the terms being used at present are from Europe and America. There is a need therefore to find ideas from the region itself.

General Discussions

Much of the discussions after the presentations focused on the impact of Confucian thinking on the education system in general and on human rights education in particular. It has been stressed that there has been a misapplication of the Confucian concepts. One of the reasons for this is the lack of consideration of the fact that the Confucian concepts were developed and applied in the societal context at the time that Confucious was still alive. His ideas therefore cannot be simply interpreted in the present-day society in Northeast Asia. There is so much change in the society at present that it will require adjustment in the application of Confucian concepts.

To a large extent, the misinterpretation of Confucian concepts has led to the paternalistic educational system where both teachers and students are affected.

There was also much comment about the competitive, examination-oriented education system that has oppressed the students so much. As mentioned in the country presentations, teachers have to concentrate only on teaching subjects that relate to examinations for the next education level. And students for their part have developed the attitude of concentrating on themselves alone, without having concern to others. Parents too have been more concerned about the performance of their children that they force their children to study even harder.

All these constitute a negative environment for education, even more for human rights education. With this environment, several key problems come out:

a. some school regulations that violate human rights principles (such as on punishment of students) continue to be implemented;

b. knowledge-centered education negates the importance of understanding relations with other people and with society;

c. teachers and students have communication gaps since students are restricted in expressing their own opinions;

d. the paternalistic education system fosters one-way teaching methodology where the teachers demand that the students simply follow what they lecture;

e. students develop conformist behavior that affects their individuality;

f. human rights education occupies a very low position in the priorities of the school because it is not included in the examination to get to higher level studies.

Needless to say, part of the problem is the general passive or even negative view of human rights by the general populace.

The very high competition among students to enter university is depriving them of the chance to enjoy their lives. Those who can afford it may provide their children with tutors. But others who have no means are left out of the competition. The right to education of the students is thus significantly affected.

It is therefore important to address this general problem about the education system in order to have an effective human rights education program in schools.

The idea of incorporating the teaching of human rights in schools comes at a time when educational reform is underway in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The opportunity presented by the movement to reform the educational system, occurring in the context of on-going political and economic reforms, gives enough room for human rights teaching to become part of the school curriculum.

As shown by the country reports, several initiatives in Northeast Asia illustrate attempts at reaching this goal. In Osaka, the Dowa education (a major component of human rights education in schools in Japan) is being reviewed to find ways and means of improving the curriculum. A teachers' association as well as education researchers look for new teaching methods and approaches that can be incorporated in the school curriculum.

The teachers themselves took the task of forming their own association that can undertake training and research on human rights education. The output of this association is then fed to the schools to improve the curriculum. The association promotes the idea that the role of the teachers in human rights education is not simply limited to the classroom but extends to activities that support curriculum development through research and training.

The Taipei experience shows an example of how teacher training can be used to support human rights education in schools. A group of teachers developed a program for training teachers on human rights education. Workshops are offered to those who are interested in learning new teaching perspectives and methodologies that subscribe to human rights principles. Training is also devoted to understanding human rights values and national and international human rights documents. Curriculum development, teaching material development, and school life case studies are also taken up. The organizing group always emphasizes the principle that human rights education is a value-based education that has to be reflected in the school environment.

The Hong Kong experience shows the need to examine ordinary subjects in the school curriculum and find relevant parts that actually deal with human rights. At the minimum, human rights can already be taught using existing subjects. Teachers will just have to be creative in making human rights much more clearly or explicitly discussed in the subjects. Support from teacher organizations that can provide programs for learning human rights and human rights work (whether of NGOs, government institutions or United Nations agencies) is important. Likewise, institutions set up by government to support specific areas such as civic education can be vehicles for introducing change in the school curriculum.

Based on the experiences presented, several issues were pointed out as areas that require more attention in order to facilitate the development of human rights education program in schools.

In response to the competitive and examination-oriented education systems, there is a need to look for a system that genuinely assesses the knowledge obtained by the students. Likewise there is a need to give special attention to disadvantaged groups such as the minorities and the disabled. Enforcement of rules against abuse of students should also be reviewed. Relations between the school and the local community must also be established to support school programs.

In direct support to the teaching of human rights, the following measures are deemed important:

  • more training both for teachers, principals and school administrators;
  • development, and wide distribution, of human rights education materials;
  • development of more specialized program on human rights education;
  • research on human rights education programs; and
  • creation of a system of exchange of materials and information at both national and regional levels.

Presentation on Cultural Values and Human Rights

Professor Byung Sun Oh made a presentation on the relationship of cultural values to human rights in the context of Korea. He mentioned that there are several barriers to promotion of human rights culture in Asia-Pacific:

  • religious diversities and the cultural and social uniqueness among Asian states and consequent difficulty in finding common standards of human rights protection;
  • strong cultural relativism and consequent denial of universal applicability of international human rights norms as espoused by some Asian states; and
  • prevalence of economic development goals over the concerns for human rights protection.

To overcome these barriers, a critical reevaluation and a new understanding of the current phenomena concerning human rights issues taking place in the Asian region, and a change of attitude are needed. He suggested the following ideas:

  • divergent religious and value systems are not necessarily negative factors in promoting human rights culture as can be seen in the examples of European and American states;
  • cultural relativist arguments raised mostly by political elites of the Asian region to preserve social hierarchy and traditional authoritarian regimes seem anachronistic in consideration of the recent sharp increase in the use of litigation method in dispute settlement in Asia; and
  • some pragmatic approaches adopted by former colonized states under Western powers such as Singapore and Malaysia stressing greater importance on economic development and unique 'Asian values' along with the undervaluing of the universal standard of international human rights norms seem inappropriate. This criticism is made possible in view of the contrasting examples of Asian neighbors such as south Korea and Taiwan where the policy of enhancing human rights standard not dissimilar to the international standards is positively promoted.

The linkage between human rights and cultural values may be introduced by adopting constructive reinterpretation of the current debates on universalism versus relativism; universal standard versus Asian values; rights-oriented individualism versus duty-oriented communitarianism, etc.

Dialogue with a Korean Educator

The workshop participants invited a Korean education specialist, Dr. Nan Sim Cho of the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation, for a dialogue. The discussion mainly focused on the present lack of formal program in the Korean schools on the teaching of human rights. It is assumed that human rights principles are taught in social studies and civic education subjects.

The workshop participants shared the general results of the discussions. They also inquired about existence of special subjects that deal with issues on minorities and migrant workers.

Since the Republic of Korea has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it was asked whether the government is teaching children about this convention. There seems to be no such program in existence at present.

Discussion on Possible Programs in Support of the Human Rights Education in Schools

The discussion on what constitute possible programs supporting the development of human rights education in schools followed the format introduced in the Surabaya workshop. It was divided into three main parts: content, methodology, and support structure.


Human rights education programs in school may have the following contents:

  • rights and responsibilities of individuals, society and the world (concept of citizenship);
  • history of the development of human rights, human rights perspective in looking at history; and human rights issues in history;
  • human rights institutions at national and international levels;
  • relationships between human beings, human beings and the society (including relationship between human beings and nature); human beings and the state; human beings and the international society;
  • specific/concrete human rights issues at the community, national and international levels;
  • national and international human rights documents;
  • ways of responding to changing human rights situation;
  • ways to gather and analyze human rights information (use of media).
  • The whole content can be classified under two main headings: culture (human rights values, concept of human dignity, etc.) and content (human rights documents, etc.).


The methodology to be used in the programs may comprise of the following:

  • use of attractive, interesting materials including advanced communication technologies such as the internet;
  • use of different types of methods (process and student-centered methodologies) like discussion, social action, simulation, role play, case study and other democratic methods;
  • use of curricular and extracurricular activities;
  • infusion/integration of human rights in all subjects in the curriculum.

Support structure

Support structure for human rights education programs in school may consist of the following:

  • improvement of school environment through student appraisal of teachers, student participation in school management, involvement of the parents and the community in school affairs;
  • establishment of human rights education resource centers at the school and national levels;
  • promotion of teachers' autonomy in teaching human rights with the appropriate responsibilities;
  • legal and financial support for teaching human rights such as financial incentives;
  • support for access to education by minorities and disadvantaged people in society and establishment of appropriate human rights institutions for them;
  • reorganization of the education bodies (after reviewing their functions) and creating human rights panels within the structure;
  • use of media to develop positive attitude among the general public toward human rights;
  • inclusion of human rights in the teachers and school administration training programs;
  • development of new paradigm in assessing students' performance; and
  • obtaining community support for human rights/human rights education.

The discussion also covered possible activities that can be done or planned by the participants in support of human rights education in schools. Such activities may consist of:

  • materials exchange regarding curriculum and teaching aids;
  • visits by teachers (primary and secondary levels) of schools in other countries
  • observing actual classes and by interacting with the local teachers, focussing on practical aspects of the programs, in schools where human rights education exist (such as in Osaka, Japan);
  • in-country meetings to clarify the concept of human rights education and to discuss participatory methodologies;
  • teachers' workshops;
  • information dissemination on human rights including making videos and school books on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
  • art exhibition on human rights for the Human Rights day celebration.

There are also planned activities such as

  • conferences on human rights education in Taipei, Osaka and Seoul;
  • peace education meetings between Japanese and Korean educators;
  • regional workshop on human rights education in schools in Osaka.

Other ideas for future activities consist of:

  • research projects on various topics such as teachers' conception of human rights, training systems, textbook analysis, teaching methods and system of evaluation, human rights and cultural values with a specific right focus;
  • development of manuals on human rights education and guide material on developing human rights education in school programs;
  • creation of inter-regional exchange system (between Europe/America and Asia);
  • information sharing system (such as making a listing of available materials).

General Observations

Professor Xia raised a number of questions regarding the Asian experiences on human rights education in schools that are very relevant in studying ways and means of supporting the continuing development of programs. He raised the following questions:

  • in relation to the issue of culture and human rights education in Asia, how do Asians perceive their values and dignity as human beings?
  • how do human rights education programs meet the needs of the poor regarding protection of their rights?
  • what kind of issues in Asian societies should be addressed first in order to make a more pragmatic and intelligible policy and related activities in the field of human rights education? Should not there be differentiation between people who traditionally have cherished a very strong idea of natural rights and those who traditionally have a strong idea of duty-orientation; between people who have high quality education and those with very low quality and level of education; between people who have the legal resources to protect their rights under a regime of law and constitutionalism and those who do not have such resources?

While these questions may be difficult and complicated to be discussed in a workshop, they should constitute a challenge in the discourse on human rights education.

He suggested that human rights education in Asia should concentrate in rights knowledge since many societies do not have the culture of legal rights unlike in Europe. He also emphasized that education on law should be treated as an essential part of human rights education. He finds this very true for modern and industrializing societies in Asia.

The workshop has strongly emphasized the importance of the societal context of doing human rights education. The common influence of Confucianism for example is a popular topic of discussion. There is also a great emphasis on the need for research on what has been done and on possible improvements of the existing programs. With these two points, the workshop accomplished the important task of identifying what human rights education programs exist and what needs to be done to develop these programs.