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10 March, 2010

Human Rights as a way of life

Founding President
People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning

For twenty years, we (PDHRE, the People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning) have worked to understand the value and meaning of the holistic vision and practical mission of human rights to ordinary people's daily lives. For that purpose we developed materials and facilitated seminars and conferences throughout the world, convinced that all women men, youth and children need to know human rights as a way of life, as a strategy for economic social and human development.

Through the United Nations we initiated international public policy and a worldwide call for human rights education. At the time we used the term EDUCATION as underscoring a process of internalizing human rights. These efforts culminated in the United Nations declaring a Decade for Human Rights Education, with the hope and expectation that it would spur action by groups and organizations at the community level to have people learn human rights as a way of life and act upon it,.

The Vienna Human Rights Confronter in 1993, was an important step in reiterating the universality, indivisibility, interconnectedness, and interrelatedness of human rights and bringing forth the imperative for Human Rights Education at all levels of society by the United Nations declaring a Decade for Human Rights Education.

I share these recollections with much joy and some sadness. it is clear that the “Decade” sought to end imposed ignorance about human rights. It spoke to the fact that people, for whom human rights were created, did not know about them. The UN called on a multitude of groups and organizations to integrate in their work, and add to their agenda human rights learning. (At the time we used the term “education,” and are now using 'learning” as the aim was and still is for people to participate in such learning as integral to developing democracies as delivery systems of human rights.)

I will never forget the young policemen who came to monitor a meeting in Kenya who half way through the opening session, called out: “If this is human rights, come and teach it in my village!” There was nothing more encouraging than this one man internalizing the holistic vision of human rights... --Asserting again and again, that all people in all villages, towns, and cities around the world must know human rights as a way of life. We believe that all people really KNOW human Rights and spontaneously move away form humiliation. If this is true we must take the responsibility for moving this knowledge from the dormant stage to the power of knowledge .. We call this LEARNING! – trust and respect in ad of of the learner.

We make a very clear distinction between human rights education and human rights learning, and unless we understand human rights as powerful tool in the hands of people, everywhere, anywhere in the world, human rights will stay captive in the hands of experts, teachers, and professionals, mostly top down and informational, and will not find its way from the vertical to the horizontal to be meaningful to people’s daily lives those for whom the human rights framework was created.

Betty Reardon, a member of our group, who is a world renowned peace educator, has given us a succinct explanation of the difference between “Human Rights Education” and “Human Rights Learnring”. And this is what she says:
"The basic distinction between human rights education and human rights leanring is between education and learning." The word "education" has been co-opted by those who determine what is to be taught, to whom and how it is to be taught, not just by the schools , but any authority who has control over information. The purpose of education is usually to get people to believe what and think as the "education authorities" want them to. Learning has not yet been so co-opted. Learning can still be what happens in those who are presented with ideas, issues, values, queries about problems, and through reflection, analysis, assessment and evaluation come to understand and hold independent ideas about their societies and as much of the world as they "learn" about. Education has become mainly input. If it has any authentic output it is learning, but mainly it is socialization to conformity and indoctrination in the dominant value system . Authentic learning happens in and at the will of the learner. Human Rights learning is more consistent than Human Rights education with the fundamental purpose of human rights concepts and standards, making it possible for all persons to realize their full human dignity.

It begins with assuming the rights of the learners to decide themselves what they will believe and develops means through which the learners can acquire information while forming their own opinions and determining their own course of action about the issues of concern to them. (There are still some places in which education is centered on learning, but few. Education at least provides basic information. For the reflective who can resist indoctrination, it can be the beginning of learning. And where people have none of the tools of acquiring information, it is better than nothing) However, in the absence of authentic human rights learning people will not be able to achieve their full dignity . Education may provide information abut human rights m but it will not necessary enable learners to develop the capacity and the motivation to fully realize them.

This statement captures the guiding spirit of the work we do around the world and this is what hangs in the balance between human rights education and human rights learning.

To make a strong argument and demonstrate the viability of Human Rights Learning at the community level --as an imperative--, we have been facilitating over the last 10 years, all over the world, the development of Human Rights Cities Twenty Human Rights Cities are in progress now , developing and implementing ways and means for all the inhabitants to know human rights as a way of life. In the learning process they adapt laws, policies, budgets and relationships to advance dignity and well being in the community. These “cities” are learning ‘pilot projects’ for all to analyze, evaluate and learn how neighborhood by neighborhood, organizations and groups, step by step, join to map the future of their community as part of the learning and acting process. .

We live in a world where a multitude of organizations work to solve the enormous problems humanity is facing one project at the time in a compartmentalized way. However we are convinced that the practical human rights framework if known and internalized by women and men at the community level holds the promise for meaningful, positive change. A Human Rights City is where local groups and organizations, those attending to a larger range of social and economic justice issues in the city, join to learn about human rights as relevant to their daily lives. Forming into a Steering Committee they develop learning programs throughout the city, encouraging people to participate in the decision that determine their lives. The learners join in critical thinking to examine the differences between symptoms and causes of concerns such as violence against women, poverty, and lack of clean water, education, food and employment- to mention a few such concerns.

This experiences led us to define the community educators who is involved in the process as follows:

“A human rights educator is a person, a woman or a man, who is capable of evoking critical thinking and systemic analysis with gender perspective, people learning about political, civil, economic, social, and cultural concerns, guided by the human rights frame work that leads to action.” – tis is what goes on day in and day out in the human rights cities.

I will never forget another instance when the head of the police academy in the Human Rights City, Rosario, Argentina, said to me as he was reflecting on a seminar with the police : “I have learned that there is no other option but human rights.”

Along side the recent 60th Anniversary of UDHR, the “Elders” led by Nelson Mandela, put out a call, “all HUMANS have RIGHTS.” I sent them a note asking them, “But do the humans know it?” ---They don’t.

At the forthcoming conference I suggest that we discuss the differences between human rights education and human rights learning, These are two distinct aspirations and actions and must be understood as such and live side by side, acknowledging that it is human rights learning at the community level, which stands a chance to make the difference in people’s lives. That human rights learning which includes intensive dialogue will focus on the realization of human rights to overcome violation, to chart their lives from a realization point of view, and thus overcome violations.

Educators , community leaders, sociologists and political economists around the world need to join in nationally and regionally in discussions, investigation, analysis and planning of how to start the process of Human Rights Learning in their community as succinctly relevant to people’s lives with in their culture and aspirations , to be guided by the holistic framework of human rights.

This is not an easy task. To give it momentum and political will, the government of Benin, brought forth a United Nations Resolution for the International Year of Human Rights Learning. This International Year – now in progress – will hopefully start a worldwide process, locally, nationally, regionally, and internationally.

A lot of thinking must be undertaken to enforce political will and public policy to usher this process each one of us in our communities. . It must be done in a locally, well-thought-out practice to identify ways and means to bring forth the meaning and the relevance of non compartmentalized societal development. Human Rights learning through a powerful, viable, creative, thoughtful commitment to have in 10-15 years all people, wherever there are, know human rights as preventive medicine, as traffic regulation, as joining to build the banks of the river, in which life can flow freely.

Our experience in more than 60 grassroots communities around the world demonstrates clearly that in the learning there is a need to distinguish between symptoms, such as violence against women and/or poverty, and causes such as patriarchy and the lack of a viable economic infrastructure. By analyzing causes, the world stands to bring about economic and social justice, step by step towards freedom from fear and need.
To see the reaction of people when they learn that food education housing, health and work at livable wages are their human rights is overwhelming. ..--learning from them of how to relearn and re imaging the vitality and meaning of human rights over and over again .

We must stand up to our responsibility and develop more and more community learning programs as a life line, a universal, now missing, support system. Let us do all we can to identify community leaders who will learn about human rights and, each in his or her locality, find the ways and means to engage their community in the learning and dialogue process, so that all will know human rights as a way of life. We have no other option.

Shulamith Koenig, Founding President of PDHRE, was recipient of the 2003 United Nations Human Rights Award

For information about PDHRE publications, work and future collaboration you are invited to browse at and/or write to

Courtesy: Countercurrents

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