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This article was written by Laurie Maher. From Wicklow, Ireland, Laurie is currently a master’s student in the International Human Rights Law programme at Lund University. She graduated with an LLB in Law and French from Trinity College Dublin, including a one year at Sciences Po, Paris. Her areas of interest include climate change, cultural and refugee rights.
10th December will see the celebration of Human Rights Day, marking the date on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948. This document is one of the foundations of modern human rights, establishing rights to which everyone is entitled regardless of their race, religion, sex, political opinion or any other reason. 2023 marks the UDHR’s 75th anniversary, a significant milestone and an opportunity to recognise the developments that have been made in progressing the recognition and guarantee of human rights across the globe.
To mark the 75th anniversary, the United Nations have been running a yearlong initiative called ‘Human Rights 75.’ It has three main objectives; to promote universality and indivisibility, to look to the future and the potential of human rights to deal with emerging issues, and to strengthen the human rights system. There have been numerous events throughout the year, which will cumulate with a high-level event on the 11th and 12th December. Here the objectives will include creating a vision of human rights for the next 25 years and enacting concrete change through a pledging event. Throughout the year there have been monthly thematic spotlights, each month highlighting a different human rights issue found in the UDHR which requires action from States and other stakeholders. The theme for December is Human Rights Education (HRE), the significance and developments regarding which will be discussed below.
What is human rights education and why is it important?
HRE contributes to the protection and realisation of human rights by promoting values, beliefs and attitudes which encourage people to uphold their own rights and the rights of others. This is an integral part of the aim of ensuring that human rights will continue to be developed and upheld into the future, as it fosters an understanding of the necessity to uphold the rights of others within a community. This can also help to prevent human rights abuses into the future.
The importance of HRE has been recognised in the international sphere on a number of occasions, most notably through the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training (UNDHRET) in 2011. Article 2(1) specifies that HRE seeks to prevent human rights abuses by, “providing persons with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behaviours, to empower them to contribute to the building and promotion of a universal culture of human rights.” This creation of a universal culture of human rights is considered important for their protection and promotion. The Declaration further recognises the right to seek and receive information about human rights and freedoms, and that everyone should have access to HRE.
This Declaration came after years of inclusion of HRE in the international rights rhetoric. Its importance was affirmed at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and in 1994 the UN Decade for Human Rights Education was established by the General Assembly, celebrated from 1995 to 2004. In 2005 the World Programme for Human Rights Education began. This programme aims to promote the basic principles and methodologies of HRE by providing a framework that enables action from a local to international level, establishing a common understanding in approach. The Programme is structured in different phases, each focusing on specific issues related to HRE such as its inclusion in school and higher education systems. For each stage a Plan of Action has been developed. States are expected and encouraged to develop initiatives and strategies in accordance within the framework of the programme and these Plans of Action.
The Current Focus of HRE Initiatives: Youth
The fourth phase of the World Programme for Human Rights Education (from 2020 to 2024) focuses on youth. Among its objectives are the expansion of HRE in both formal and informal contexts and the encouragement of participation and leadership of young people in HRE programmes. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk recently spoke of the importance of HRE for young people and its role in helping them, “become active citizens at a time when they explore the meaning of belonging to a community and society.” It can also help to develop a capacity for critical thinking and meaningful participation. Additionally, Türk recognised the importance of youth participation in HRE; “Young people must be leading in planning, designing, and implementing these programmes for their peers.”
The growing importance of the contribution of young people was similarly recognised in the report of the Panel Discussion on the Tenth Anniversary of the UNDHRET in 2021. It recognised the capacity of young people to drive change and their unique capabilities as leaders to engage their peers and to develop HRE efforts in a way that would effectively do so. HRE “for, with and by youth” was emphasised, with a focus on the creation of space for young people to express themselves and contribute to decision-making processes. The need for this youth participation is going to increase as issues that will affect young people the most, such as climate change and the need for a sustainable future, become increasingly salient.
The Significance of Youth Involvement in HRE
There are a number of examples illustrating the significant developments that can occur when youth become involved in HRE practices and are given the space to participate and educate their peers. The ‘Fridays for Future’ movement is one such example; it is a youth-led movement aiming to raise awareness about the climate crisis to spark action. The organisation of the climate strikes, both on the streets and online during the Covid-19 pandemic, illustrates the successful creation of a space where young people can learn from their peers about climate change and its impacts on their rights to a healthy environment, to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. The use of social media by young people in organising these strikes and sharing information about climate change highlights the importance and capacity of informal HRE for awareness raising and youth engagement.
Moving forward: What needs to happen for HRE in the future?
The midterm review of phase four of the World Programme for Human Rights Education took place in July 2022. This phase had required that states develop, implement and monitor national strategies to promote HRE centred around young people. This midterm review received submissions regarding these developments and reviews of states’ HRE policies and monitoring mechanisms relating to youth. The resulting report recognised the importance of informal HRE for young people and the way in which it can complement formal HRE, as well as recognising the importance of youth participation and activism. It called for states to implement national legislation, policies and strategies to ensure the protection of youth’s human rights at a national level, as well as recognising the need to address the digital divide to ensure that educational resources can be accessed by all. Although this report gives a generally positive outlook on the development of youth HRE under this fourth phase of the Programme, only 17 states reported. In order for the importance of HRE for youth to be maintained and the positive progress to continue, state involvement, commitment and reporting should increase to ensure that youth-focused HRE is being effectively implemented.
Further reading about human rights education:
OHCHR, Monthly thematic spotlights, Human Rights 75 Initiative: https://www.ohchr.org/en/human-rights-75/monthly-themes#December
OHCHR, Human Rights Education and Training Materials and Resources: https://www.ohchr.org/en/resources/educators/human-rights-education-training/human-rights-education-and-training-materials-and-resources
Gabriela Martinez Sainz and Amy Hanna, ‘Youth digital activism, social media and human rights education: the Fridays for Future movement.’ (June 2023) Human Rights Education Review https://doi.org/10.7577/hrer.4958
OHCHR, ‘Draft plan of action for the fourth phase (2020–2024) of the World Programme for Human Rights Education Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Human Rights (26 July 2019) A/HRC/42/23
OHCHR, ‘Human Rights Education and Training’ https://www.ohchr.org/en/resources/educators/human-rights-education-training#:~:text=Human%20rights%20education%20promotes%20values,a%20reality%20in%20each%20community.
OHCHR, Human Rights 75: Commemorating seventy-five years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (8 February 2023) https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/hr75-roadmap-short.pdf
OHCHR, ‘Human Rights 75 Initiative, Monthly thematic spotlights’ https://www.ohchr.org/en/human-rights-75/monthly-themes#December
OHCHR, ‘Türk calls for more human rights education to build “just, peaceful and sustainable world”’ (4 December 2023) https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/12/turk-calls-more-human-rights-education-build-just-peaceful-and-sustainable
OHCHR, ‘World Programme for Human Rights Education (2005-ongoing)’ https://www.ohchr.org/en/resources/educators/human-rights-education-training/world-programme-human-rights-education
Raoul Wallenberg Institute, ‘Human Rights Education. Education about, through and for Human Rights’ https://rwi.lu.se/human-rights-education-education-about-through-and-for-human-rights/
UN General Assembly, ‘Midterm progress report on the implementation of the fourth phase of the World Programme for Human Rights Education’ (28 July 2022) A/HRC/51/8
UN General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training (19 December 2011) A/RES/66/137
UN, ‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 75’ https://www.un.org/en/observances/human-rights-day