Human Rights

Human Rights Education and Democracy1

[Utrecht University]

Human Rights Education (HRE) is seen as a tool and method to unlock human rights and make them a living instrument of democratic societies. Successful democracies and societies are based on mutual respect of fundamental rights of people. With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s we encounter an increase of human rights awareness, democratic transitions, and growing involvement of international organizations and the nongovernmental sector in HRE. New information technologies, globalization, and the rise of civil society paved the way for new strategies and methods to disseminate the idea of human rights worldwide and along with it a better understanding of democratic concepts.

Keywords: human rights education, democracy, state responsibility, human rights, values, ngo’s

Human Rights Education (HRE) is often seen as a tool to unlock human rights and human rights awareness that lead to a better understanding of democratic concepts and thus living democracy. HRE is defined as a set of educational and pedagogical learning methods to inform people of and train them in their human rights. HRE aims to provide information about the international or regional human rights norms, standards and systems and to give people the skills and attitudes that lead to the protection and support of human rights.2 Educating people in their human rights should empower them to know and use their human rights to protect themselves and others from human rights violations. HRE leads to mutual understanding and respect for human rights. Thus it contributes and it protects peoples´ dignity.3 To accomplish this, the human right to education is a pivotal prerequisite that is not guaranteed in every society. Thus, one of the obstacles to materializing HRE is ironically that without the implementation of the right to education, it cannot reach the people that most need it: the vulnerable, the poor or minority groups. They are often excluded from the formal education sector. HRE is often used by most organizations, NGOs and in academia as an umbrella term for different forms of peace, international, tolerance, civic or cultural education. So far, it is mainly the NGOs and private sector that operationalize most of the HRE programs. The majority of the publications and training materials in that field are published by the private sector and they use different terms and notions for equivalent educational programs. These publications and training materials triggered more initiatives and this again led to the founding of more NGOs that are today primarily involved with HRE.4

The political transformation that started in 1989/90 and continued in the following years was a major turning point for human rights, resulting in growing awareness, human rights education and an impact on democratic development. In the following decade, the idea of human rights was disseminated in a way and at a pace that nobody had expected. For example, a growing number of international events, conferences, reforms and initiatives took place to promote the idea of human rights. One of the major tools to achieve this growing awareness, namely education in human rights, was in large part further developed during this period. The 1993 UN Conference for Human Rights in Vienna, the UN Decade for HRE from 1995 to 2004 and the record number of signed and ratified international human rights treaties are only a few cornerstones that illustrate the growing importance of human rights during this post Cold War period.5 It was a period when many former communist dictatorships became independent democratic countries, enacting impressive constitutional reforms that incorporated human rights. But the 1990s was also a decade of reversed democratic trends as in the Russian Federation and the period of suppression and atrocities, genocide and human rights violations that took place in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the mid 1990s. These events influenced the process and set ups of the International Criminal Court, the Millennium Development Goals and other major human rights reforms and initiatives. Civil society engagement, private initiatives and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) soon started blossoming around the world, soon reaching over a million in number.

Around the turn of the millennium HRE started to become a fixed concept and tool to transmit human rights into the public sphere. At the same time human rights conventions and treaties had reached their peak in numbers in the 1990s. This again pressured governments to implement national initiatives such as human rights commissions, ombudsmen or HRE programs. Local initiatives, national human rights commissions and state human rights institutions fostered and promoted the idea of human rights through educational programs and widely established awareness campaigns. In this respect, human rights became part of many peoples’ daily lives through education, media and the use of modern information technologies like the Internet and online training courses. Through these specific means, HRE contributed to democratic stability. People started to know more about their political and social rights, were able to claim their rights and challenge their governments about abuses.

How did this come about and why was HRE all of a sudden so important? During the four decades of the Cold War, human rights were often held „hostage” by the powers in the East and the West, each claiming that their interpretation of the meaning of human rights and democracy was true. From the perspective of western states this meant that political freedom rights were more relevant than social and economic human rights. Socialist countries, by contrast, proclaimed that social and economic human rights had to be realized before political freedom could be guaranteed. Consequently, during the Cold War there was no time to promote a holistic view of human rights through HRE. It was a political issue, interpreted in different ideological and conceptual ways and therefore often politically misused. At the same time, expectations of the human rights community increased. NGOs expressed expectations that with the UN-Decade for HRE, the time to finally promote and disseminate all human rights in equal terms had arrived. Ideological borders that had hampered the development and dissemination of human rights for over 40 years were considered by NGOs to be invalid.6 But new obstacles were about to appear in the 1990s and 2000s including the growing cleavages between rich and poor, religious intolerance, the increase of non-state wars and national security threats. Autocratic regimes hide behind the shield of „democracy” by holding mock elections and referenda on constitutions which never get respected or implemented.

Nevertheless, the end of the Cold War paved the way for more possibilities to disseminate the idea of human rights for three reasons: first, the end of two opposing political ideologies with opposing interpretations of what human rights are and how to implement and respect them; second, the fact that international organizations such as the UN agencies, the UN special organizations such as the UNESCO, the Council of Europe, the European Union and the NGOs started to collaborate more in the field of human rights promotion; and, third, due to the emergence of new information technologies and the Internet, which could quickly disseminate the idea of human rights and for the visualization of human rights knowledge to all corners of the world. HRE was the consequence of this development and at the same time was the tool used to materialize and spread human rights across borders.

Democratizing through Human Rights Education

If it is true that a democracy is stable if at least 70 percent of a society adheres to the principle that ‘democracy is the only game in then a wide understanding of human rights is a prerequisite.7 As simple as it sounds, this high percentage of compliance and adherence to democratic rules and human rights is not easy to achieve. Consequently, this means that large parts of a society and its political leadership have to respect and act according to democratic principles, such as the rule of law, free and fair elections. They must also accept power shifts and the independence of the judiciary. Citizens and non-citizens alike have to respect and trust legislative and executive powers, which in return have to fight fraud and corruption, be accountable and transparent to its citizenry and thus respect everyone’s human rights. They ought to understand that the implementation and fulfillment of human rights is a positive alternative to previous political regimes or systems.

The inclusion and protection of human rights in all spheres of society, including the judiciary, legislative and executive levels alike, can pave the way for peaceful transition towards democracy, therefore stabilizing the country. Here, a direct link can be drawn between the requirement to implement the right to education and government responsibility to fulfill and to install HRE as a tool to reach general human rights awareness and behavior. Only governments and the formal education sector can guarantee the full inclusion of HRE in school curricula. State authorities ought to understand that they themselves and the society in general can benefit from HRE because it can contribute to the stability of democratic societies. In reverse, it also means, that HRE can be a threat to those regimes and power structures who aim to avoid pluralistic societies and full fletched democracies. Autocratic countries and authoritarian regimes, like the Russian Federation prefer to talk about citizenship education by which they mean to introduce constitutional values and domestic laws which are often contradictory to human rights and democratic values. Civic values or education for democratic citizenship are seen as a sufficient exercise to learn about human rights. Accordingly, many governments have deliberately not incorporated HRE into the formal education curricula. It will therefore take more time for NGOs like Amnesty International, the PDHRE, HREA or other initiatives of teachers and higher education professionals to lobby and intervene at national and international levels in order to merge HRE and EDC and to construct a holistic and competitive education concept.8

The fact that people are empowered to know, use and claim human rights if any anti-democratic move jeopardizes their freedoms and needs for social security, health or peace, threatens autocratic structures. But it can stabilize systems based on the rule of law and welfare. It consequently means that if the majority of citizens and people in a society know to claim and use their human rights, democracy will less likely to have functional failures. If democracy is understood as a permanent process of negotiation, power sharing and compromising ones own interests by the means of responding to needs, interests and demands of societal groups, executive, legislative and judicial powers, then human rights serve as a successful tool to enhance these mechanisms.9 In countries in which the right to free and compulsory primary school education is neither guaranteed nor implemented by the state, NGOs play an important role in filling the gap. They can promote and lobby against governments to fulfill their international obligations to implement the right to education and then HRE.

Human rights are no longer mere rhetoric; they have instead entered the political decision-making process and mainstream civil society movements. The stipulation of non-discrimination, the promotion of children’s rights, the respect for people with disabilities and the elderly, the right to be free from want or the right to health and education, have inspired many legal scholars and politicians over the past decades. Constitutional referendums are often justified and legitimized by making reference to the UDHR of 1948 and to many of the human rights treaties and conventions.10 Globally today, there are over 200 legal binding documents that set norms and standards to which national governments and parliaments ought to comply with. The respect and implementation of human rights in domestic legislation are seen as a way to solve conflicts, as well as avoid social cleavages and turmoil in a non-violent and preemptive way. Because they are made for all people and not just for a select class or political elite, human rights have a chance to become part of general societal behavior. NGOs have made use of this shift towards democratic reforms and accelerated this process through their campaigns, programs and trainings. Thereon, NGOs became indispensable actors in the international human rights arena. They brought the idea of HRE to international forums, conferences and meetings. This was particularly the case after NGOs, the UNO and UNESCO worked together. They promoted the idea that HRE should be conducted on all levels and in all sectors, formal and non-formal alike. This cooperation would disseminate the cause of human rights more quickly and to a wider audience than solo campaigns aiming to stop human rights violations.11 In this regard, NGOs and the UNO often made reference to the human right to education in Art. 26 of the UDHR. It implies that people should not only receive basic education but also should have the right be educated in their human rights.12 And in 2009 and 2010 various international HRE networks pressured the UN to adopt a number of documents to enhance the efforts in educational programs for human rights. A new plan for the second phase of the World Program for Human Rights Education is now in action.13

Why have state authorities often neglected this topic; and why do they prefer political, citizen and ideological education over HRE? Part of the answer is that it is difficult to construct a holistic HRE curriculum in which economic, social and cultural rights like the human right to work, education, adequate housing or social security are taught on an equal basis with civil and political rights like the right to free speech, opinion and assembly. Holistic HRE is also hampered because political leaders fear that if more people were to know that adequate housing, health, security, free movement or education are basic human rights, they would claim them against their governments and thus challenge current social and political system or „traditions” in governance. This is constantly disputed, for example, in China where as B. Guimei points out, HRE slowly makes ground but NGOs have to justify and explain that by introducing HRE, they are not following a ‘hidden agenda’ against the government.14 Nevertheless, in authoritarian countries NGOs and human rights educators are under constant scrutiny. Representatives of the formal education sector, such as school teachers, education ministries or book publishers, have understood that HRE is sometimes difficult to operationalize, not as much in technical or pedagogical terms, but rather in political terms. In countries in which basic education for all is denied or human rights are seen as ‘western values only’, it is even more difficult to introduce HRE programs.

Concluding Remarks: State responsibility and human rights

Even though the growth in number of national and local NGOs, as well as a matured and empowered civil society, can be seen as a positive phenomenon of the 1990s, that growth has mostly occurred in western countries and has depended on the Western based donor community. Thus NGO activities sometimes have a perverse impact on state responsibilities because their activism leads to the controversial issue of governments outsourcing their obligations. It is not seldom that state authorities, international organizations like the Council of Europe, the European Union/Commission or the UNDP support NGOs financially to do school visits, train teachers and members of security forces or state officials. For many NGOs, this is a way to finance their activities. The demand for HRE is for them a motivation to increase the „job-market” in that field. They are supported by governmental or private money and legitimized through the commitments by the UNO and its member states. At the same time, this development carries the risk that as long as governments avoid taking full ownership – as they agreed to do in Vienna in 1993 and with the UN Decade for HRE starting in 1994 – HRE will not be fully incorporated in national education systems. Worldwide, national authorities have only slowly taken ownership over HRE, and to a far lesser degree than they promised to in 1994.

Whether it is NGOs or the state that conducts HRE has a significant impact on the democratic development of a society. I to give two reasons for this. First, in order to spread the idea of human rights among societies, state authorities are still the most pivotal players for HRE at all educational and societal levels. Second, teachers, trainers or professors that do HRE do not always resist in teaching a ‘political or ideological agenda’ that serves the interests of a few people in power instead of the society as a whole. In contrast, to leave HRE in the hands of few people, private initiatives and NGOs, carries the risk that they will promote and teach only a selection of human rights and not the full spectrum. It becomes problematic if only some human rights are taught selectively without putting them into a broader context that include cultural, ethical or religious values. Often this process is not satisfying because many programs have the tendency to promote some human rights but neglect others – even if they are internationally and domestically recognized. Because NGOs have to discharge certain duties, have limited resources, face political or ethical restrictions or have to follow the demands of their stakeholders, donors and sponsors, they sometimes fail to develop comprehensive and long term HRE programs. Nevertheless, NGOs like Human Rights Education Associates, Amnesty International, the PDHRE and the International Centre for Human Rights Education in Montreal (EQUITAS) have become indispensable actors in the field of human rights promotion on a holistic level. For these, the UN-Decade proclamation helped them to more effectively lobby governments, national authorities and other international organisations, such as to convince governments to comply with the UN document to install national action plans for HRE.

If the government takes responsibility for implementing programmes in the national education curriculum, then HRE becomes formal and accessible for all. At that stage it can have direct impact on the democratic and human rights development for the majority of people, who learn to use human rights in a critical, analytical and productive manner. But HRE remains incomplete if performed only by NGOs, private initiatives, foundations, or even large institutions like the UN or the Council of Europe, because HRE is then done on a short term and project orientated basis. Hence, the domestic formal education sector is still the main tool and mechanism to reach the majority of a society. Otherwise, human rights knowledge will languish at elite levels, for example at the academic and higher education levels, or will only be accessible to a limited number of people who are able to pay private tuition for HRE courses.

Many authors argue that the higher the degree of democracy, the higher the possibility that human rights values are respected and implemented. Others argue that it is when more people know about their human rights that it is more likely will they ask for democratic reforms and processes. Numerous comparative studies have shown that this correlation exists because people in free democracies more often vote for political representatives if they respect and safeguard their human rights, e.g. R. Ingelhard and C. Welzel.15 Peoples’ votes are linked to the level at which governments are held accountable for the implementation of basic human rights. Again, others like J. Donnelly16 and R. Howard-Hassmann17 find no evidence that democracy is necessarily the best political system to protect or promote human rights. But it can also be stated that democracies educate and empower their citizens to a greater extent to ensure that the public also respect human rights. A liberal democracy is the most likely qualified to implement, promote and protect all human rights. Not surprisingly, HRE will find greater acceptance in societies and amongst political actors in democracies rather than amongst authoritarian regimes. Whereas democratic leaders tend to respond to their citizens, the people, empowered and well educated in human rights, will also ask for fulfilment and implementation of norms and standards and practical consequences.



1 A lengthly article on this topic has been published by the author: Anja Mihr, Global Human Rights Awareness, Education and Democratization, in Journal of Human Rights, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, 8 (2009) 177–189.
2 George Andreopoulos and Richard Pierre Claude (Eds.) Human Rights Education for the Twenty-First Century, University of Pennsylvania Press (1997).
3 Anja Mihr, ‘Human Rights Education’, in Denemark, Robert A. (Ed.) The International Studies Compendium Project: Human Rights, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford (2009) 3439-3456.
4 Felisa, Tibbits, Human Rights Education’ in: Bajaj, Monisha (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Peace Education, Teachers College, Columbia University (2008) (Dec. 2010)
5 The growing number of HRE instruments and documents can be accessed via UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (December 2010).
6 Katarina Tomasevski, Human Rights Obligations: making education available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable, in Right to Education Primers, No. 3, Gothenburg (2001).
7 Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan (Ed.), Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, Southern Europe, South America and Post Communist Europe, Baltimore and London (1996).
8 Nancy Flowers, ‘How to Define Human Rights Education? A Complex Answer to a Simple Question’, in Viola B. Georgi and Michael Seberich (Eds.) International Perspectives in Human Rights Education 112, Bertelsmann Foundation Publishing, Guethersloh (2004) 105-127.
9 Leonardo Morlino, What is a „Good” Democracy?, in: Croissant, Aurel/ Merkel, Wolfgang (Eds.) (2004) Consolidated or Defective Democracy? Problems of Regime Change, Special Issue, Vol 11, Nr. 5, Democratisations, A Frank Cass Journal (2004), 10-32.
10 See number of international documents for example, Universal Human Rights Index (Dec 2010).
11 Leah Levin, Human Rights, Questions and Answers, UNESCO Publishing (2004).
12 United Nations, Human Rights, The United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), No. 3, The Right to Human Rights Education, UN Publisher, New York and Geneva (1999).
13 UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Fifteenth Session, Draft Plane of action for the second phase (2010-2014) of the World Programme for Human Rights Education, A/HRC/15/28, (27 July 2010).
14 Bai Guimei, ‘Human Rights Education in Chinese Universities’, in Benedek, Wolfgang/ Gregory, Clare/ Kozma, Julia/ Nowak, Manfred/ Strohal, Chirstian/ Theurermann, Engelbert (Eds.) Global Standards-Local Actions, 15 Years Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, Vienna, (2009), 355.358.
15 Roland Ingelhart and Christian Welzel, Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy, The Human Development Sequence, Cambridge University Press (2005).
16 Jack Donnelly, Human Rights, Democracy, and Development, in Human Rights Quarterly, Johns Hopkins University Press, Vol. 21, (1999) 619.
17 Rhoda E. Howard-HassmannThe Second Great Transformation: Human Rights Leapfrogging in the Era of Globalization’, in Human Rights Quarterly, Johns Hopkins University Press Vol. 27 (2005) p. 1-40.


ANJA MIHR – Associate Professor, Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM), Utrecht University.




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