Human rights begin in the classroom

Published on Friday, 16 September 2016
Human rights begin in the classroom Credits:

As another school year opens in many parts of the world, many families will be relieved to close the book on the bloody summer of 2016. From Orlando to Dallas, Nice to Istanbul, Syria to South Sudan, the tragedies of the last few months give us more than enough reason to fear that the world is a mess. And that’s without mentioning what is arguably the most toxic American presidential campaign in modern history while a wave of xenophobia sweeps across Europe.

And yet, looking beyond the immediate crises, I am convinced that there is reason for hope. As so often is the case, that hope rests with our children.

As students and teachers around the world prepare to resume their routines, a small but growing number of schools will see a new subject into usual curriculum: human rights.

At Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, our education programme, Speak Truth To Power, creates teacher-developed lesson plans that tell the stories of the most courageous people on earth, people who faced imprisonment, torture and repression—people, in other words, who lived through cataclysms like those filling the news today, and tried to do something about them. These stories show students how resistance and perseverance create change, and how anyone, no matter how big or small, can make a difference.

Few students are exposed to the concept of human rights in elementary and high school, and many don’t even learn about it in college. But, for there to be a real impact, one that can tackle today’s mess, there needs to be a paradigm shift within the global education community.
Calling for a more robust worldwide embrace of human rights education by invoking the Holocaust, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid bin Ra'ad said in speech given at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“Eight of the 15 people who planned the Holocaust in 1942 held PhDs. They shone academically, and yet they failed to show the smallest shred of ethics and understanding. I am increasingly supportive of the proposition that education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights component, can be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel.”

Human rights don't need to be a separate class. The stories of human rights defenders are folded into required subjects, allowing teachers to teach empathy alongside equations. The idea is to integrate human rights into the very fabric of what schools teach, not to regard it as something “extra” or incidental to their missions. By hearing the words of those who have confronted injustice, young people feel empowered to abandon the role of bystander and take action when confronted with human rights abuses.

The impact of human rights education is real. Teachers from Phnom Penh to Peoria tell us that by integrating human rights into their existing curriculum, they have not only seen students’ knowledge of human rights increase, but also their global literacy. In an era when classrooms are saturated with standardised exams, human rights education reminds young people that character matters more than any test score. In doing so, we help raise citizens of the world who will hold their societies to the highest standards of equality and justice.

For decades, I investigated, reported and advocated on behalf of some of the most marginalised people on earth: refugees from Ethiopia, internally displaced persons from Sudan, Bosnian war victims, people with disabilities, trafficking victims, and Afghans whose entire country is littered with mass graves. Today, mass graves are still being dug, war crimes are still being committed, and refugees are still cast from their homes.

But there are also more students who understand the principles of human rights. If we commit ourselves to educating every student about human rights, I am convinced that this generation can contribute to a more peaceful world.

In short, a world that is not such a mess.

Last modified on Friday, 16 September 2016

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John Heffernan

John Heffernan is the Executive Director of RFK Speak Truth To Power at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Heffernan brings to RFK Human Rights over 20 years of experience in development, human rights, humanitarian relief, and post-conflict reconstruction projects in the United States, Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe. He ran the United States Refugee Resettlement Office for the International Rescue Committee in Khartoum Sudan from 1991-1993 and then established the same operation in Zagreb, Croatia in 1995 for refugees fleeing Bosnia.

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