Overview: Human Rights Education in the Asia-Pacific

The words "human rights education" became more widely used in Asia-Pacific only during the decade of the 1990s. But its practice had started in many Asian and Pacific countries decades before the words "human rights education" became popular. Educational initiatives that relate to human rights have already existed in the 1950s.

One can easily cite as an example the DOWA education in Japan as essentially human rights education and yet called by a different name. It started in early 1950s. DOWA education promotes basic human rights concepts such as equality and harmonious co-existence and therefore falls under human rights education. As explained in one publication:

Dowa education can be divided into "Dowa education as human rights" and "Dowa education about human rights." The former deals with issues of school enrollment, school achievement and educational opportunities in general, while the latter is concerned with school curriculum and teaching efforts to change prejudiced views and to enhance human rights awareness. [i]

In other Asian countries, human rights education also takes different names. It can be democracy education, peace education, legal literacy, paralegal training, workers' rights education, consumers' rights education, and even health education. In the formal education system, human rights can be taken up as part of civic education, values education, or social studies (though they may have the limitation of presenting only certain aspects of human rights rather than their integrated whole, and duties of citizens may be overly emphasized to the detriment of certain rights and freedoms).

Human rights education, or its equivalent, in Asia-Pacific has almost always been part of a distinct history. It is generally part of the history of struggle for justice. Different groups either composed of professionals who see the need to work for change, or members of grassroots communities or sectors who are themselves deprived of justice, do human rights education to attain their goal of creating a just and humane society.

With poverty and suffering under unjust systems (such as the continuing discrimination against women, the exploitation of natural resources by business entities to the prejudice of the people who depend on them, the discrimination against minority or religious groups, the rule by military or authoritarian governments) that are still major problems in the Asia-Pacific, groups working for social, economic and political change are the ones doing human rights education. It is thus almost the rule that groups doing human rights education in Asia-Pacific are at the grassroots level where they (the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable) are found. They talk about human rights in concrete terms  - in terms of lack of access to natural resources such as land and water; exploitation of labor whether of men, women or children; abuse by members of the police and the military, and government personnel; absence of government services; lack of basic social services such as water supply, medical care, education facilities; discrimination by some sectors of society against another sector of society; and oppressive social practices and traditions.

There is distinct bias in human rights education in favor of the oppressed members of society. This is seen in the kind of programs and participants that most groups doing human rights education have. This is also reflective of the needs of these groups. There is a belief that justice comes only when the oppressed people themselves bring it about. In other words, those who are presently unable to enjoy the full blessings of humane life should be empowered to be able to obtain such life.

It should be noted however that there are groups providing human rights education to the general public, or people who are neither considered to be marginalized nor vulnerable.

One particular human rights training activity that has become well spread in many parts of Asia and the Pacific is the so-called paralegal training. This is an activity that has the main purpose of training selected members of the community to do human rights work as paralegals. Training may range from learning basic documentation of human rights cases to assisting victims of human rights violations to holding paralegal training (or other human rights education activities). The clear emphasis on using the domestic or local legal and social institutions in resolving or realizing human rights characterizes paralegal training.

Activities such as staging plays, puppetry and other cultural events are also used for human rights education purposes. Community-based and adult literacy education programs have used culture and arts to enhance educational activities. Complementing these activities is the production of reading materials that may consist of handouts, comics, magazines, newsletters, journals and books, and also audio-visual materials such as cassette and videotape records, DVDs and other digital formats. A variety of these materials can be found in many countries in the region. [ii]

Groups doing human rights education

As mentioned earlier, human rights education is not done only by the so-called human rights education groups or human rights organizations. Many other groups working within communities do human rights education. These groups have the facility for doing human rights education over a longer term. They also have significant exposure to the problems faced by the communities, and the confidence of the people because of the long period of working with them.

One may classify groups involved in human rights education into the following [iii]

a. Social development agencies such as those doing social mobilizing/animation or community organizing activities for social, political, economic and cultural development;

b. Human rights organizations such as those that document, disseminate information and launch campaigns on human rights issues;

c. Social action groups such as those that take up social issues and put pressure on the government and other institutions to address the resolution of these issues;

d. Sectoral organizations such as women's groups, peasant organizations, and workers' unions that focus on organizing the sectors concerned and taking action on issues affecting them;

e. Law groups such as those providing legal assistance and education to grassroots communities;

f. Grassroots/popular education groups such as those providing basic literacy services to communities; and

g. Art/cultural groups such as those that inform the general public about issues affecting the communities through plays and other art forms.

Human rights education forms part of the education programs of these groups. They differ in emphasis on rights, issues and participants. The programs, with human rights education component, may fall under the following: [iv]

a. Conscientization/campaign (public exposition of issues);

b. Legal literacy (education on laws - domestic and international);

c. Skills training (acquisition of specific know-how on human rights work);

d. Social research (participatory way of finding out the conditions of people);

e. Community organization/mobilization (facilitation of the formation of structures in communities such as establishment of organizations to address community problems);

f. Community education (functional literacy program with social dimension);

g. Social action (activities that address social issues such as making petitions to government and other institutions); and

h. Popular education (program for increasing people’s knowledge on how they can employ their right to participate in societal affairs).

In terms of the formal education system, human rights education is undertaken by a variety of institutions such as the non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions, human rights centers (particularly the university-based), schools, universities and the ministries of education.

The ideal structure for human rights education in the school system can be the application of both integration of human rights as content into the different subjects in the curriculum and a separate subject on human rights. This has to be supported by the use of human rights principles in extra-curricular activities, school rules and regulations, and school management (especially in relation to the working conditions of the teachers). But there are numerous practical obstacles that hinder the development of this ideal structure for human rights education in the school system, ranging from the problem of reforming the curriculum to have explicit provision on human rights education, to lack of teaching and learning materials, and to inadequate (or lack of) teacher training on human rights education.

Thus an incremental approach has to be adopted starting with what exist within the school system. Many governments (mainly the ministries of education) in the Asia-Pacific point to a number of “educations” as vehicles for human rights education. These “educations” include:

- Civic education (Vietnam, Malaysia)

- Moral studies (Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan)

- Legal education (Philippines, China)

- Religious education (Malaysia, Pakistan)

- Values education (Thailand, Philippines, India, Fiji, South Korea, Australia)

- Peace education (Thailand, South Korea, Philippines)

- Gender and development education (Philippines)

Each of these “educations” has a particular purpose that promotes the curricular objective of the countries involved. Their contents more or less include human rights principles. However, in order for these “educations” to become vehicles of human rights, there is a need for deliberate integration of human rights into their content. Human rights principles must also be integrated into the teaching and learning processes, as well as school activities and systems. Without such deliberate integration of human rights into the content and processes of education, human rights may hardly be learned from these “educations.”

Human rights education at the tertiary level in the Asia-Pacific is at the developing stage, while graduate courses on human rights have developed much more. Law faculties have taken the lead in teaching human rights during the past decade, though there is no indication this in happening in most of the law faculties in the region. There are now certificate and graduate courses that offer the study of human rights in relation to various topics such as law, health, anthropology, business, environment, women’s concerns, and social welfare.

There are also human rights education initiatives for members of the judiciary, police and military, and for government officials through their respective judicial, police, military and in-service training institutes.


Since the 1980s, regional training activities on human rights have existed mainly for the non-governmental sector. In addition to programs focusing on specific human rights issues, these initiatives also covered human rights in relation to development, peace, environment, culture, and other issues. The same trend continues in terms of new initiatives that cover HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, persons with disabilities, child labor, sexual orientation, governance, business, and indigenous peoples.

The creation of these new human rights education initiatives parallel the increasing attention being paid to the issues involved. The adoption by the United Nations of international agreements and the holding of international and regional conferences on these issues helped define the need for relevant supporting educational initiatives at the national and regional levels.

The regional networks on various issues are primarily involved in these regional educational initiatives. Among the network of national human rights institutions, various training activities are held annually for their member-institutions. [v]

United Nations training programs have also helped in popularizing the so-called rights-based approach to developing and implementing national programs on health, development, security and other issues. Drug and human trafficking, for example, has become a major focus of programs and projects of various UN agencies covering the development of information and training materials, holding of training courses (for members of the police and the judiciary, and relevant government officials working on children, labor, women, health, criminal justice, drugs and other concerns), and the occasional seminars that provide update on the latest developments on ground-level activities. [vi]

Growth Area

Notable in the recent years is the increased collaboration among the different institutions on many human-rights-related initiatives. Non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions, and human rights centers have joined governments and international organizations (particularly United Nations and its agencies, offices, funds and programs) in undertaking human rights education, among many other activities. This is an important development in terms of ensuring the incorporation of various perspectives in undertaking human rights education, and also in providing a better prospect of sustainability for the initiatives.

Human rights education at the community level continues as many communities face problems that have root to lack of respect for and protection of human rights. Regional and national human rights education programs are challenged to ensure that they have positive impact at the community level.


* - Prepared by Jeff R. Plantilla

[i] Yasumasa Hirasawa and Yoshiro Nabeshima, eds., Dowa Education: Educational Challenge Toward a Discrimination-Free Japan, Buraku Liberation Research Institute, Osaka, Japan (1995), page 3.

[ii] See the ARRC Resource Material Collection on Human Rights Education, Asian Regional Resource Center for Human Rights Education, Bangkok, Thailand, 1994.

[iii] Based on the article “Asian Experiences on Human Rights Education” by Jefferson R. Plantilla in A Survey of On-going Human Rights Education in Asia-Pacific, Asian Regional Resource Center for Human Rights Education. Bangkok, Thailand, 1995.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See the educational activities of the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions for more information on this issue. Visit: www.asiapacificforum.net

[vi] A good example of UN regional initiative focusing on particular issues with strong human rights content is the Regional Centre for East Asia and the Pacific of the United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes. For more information visit: www.unodc.org/eastasiaandpacific/