Friday, 25 March 2011

OPINION: Changing society without revolution

In times of revolutions in North Africa we can truly understand why the United Nations and Council of Europe encourage states to strengthen education in human rights and democratic citizenship. The schools are social arenas where values are being formed. In the long run, education in human rights will lead to positive developments. Norwegian authorities should strengthen such education in Norway, but also be more active on the international arena.

During the last decades there has been a lot of focus on the potential of human rights education in order to promote respect for human dignity, human rights and democracy. The World Programme for human rights education and the corresponding Plan of Action have been developed by the United Nations. A Declaration of Human Rights Education will, most probably, be adopted during the next session of the General Assembly. Council of Europe launched Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education last year. The Charter urges European states to strengthen such education in the school systems, but also in the society as such.

To teach human rights to young people is the best guarantee for the development of peaceful and democratic societies. The core values of human rights, namely human dignity, equality and the non-discrimination principle, encourage people to reflect, participate, be tolerant and respect others. The international human rights system has been built up step by step after the World War II. This system is far from being perfect, but still it has made a huge progress since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948. Legally binding human rights conventions have been adopted and following-up mechanisms have been established. More and more states support the system. The system in Europe with the European Convention of human rights and fundamental freedoms as its framework, is the most advanced regional system. It protects 800 million people in 47 member-states of the Council of Europe. In case a state is found guilty in the European Court of Human Rights, it is obliged to change its judicial praxis and harmonise its own legislation according to the Court’s judgement. The system works slowly but surely, in order to develop a common legal standard without any revolutions. This concrete impact of the international human rights, explains its growing support in the world community.

So, what is the situation in Norwegian schools? Do youngsters learn about the human rights values, their historical heritage, and the capabilities of the national and international protection mechanisms? Do they discuss human rights’ challenges and how the system can be improved? Does the way the teaching is carried out encourage participation and democratic understanding?

In spite of the existence of the international and Norwegian guidelines about human rights as a fundamental element in the educational system, one cannot say that enough has been done to bring it into reality. Even if important steps have been taken, as for example, the initiation of the new subject “Politics and human rights” in high schools in 2007, there is still a gap between political declarations and the reality. Surveys show that human rights education is present in schools, but the teaching is too often fragmented and sporadic. Much still depends on the engagement and will of the single teacher. There is also a lack of possibilities for teachers to take relevant education, and many lack both theoretical and methodological competence. The Human Rights Academy’s experiences confirm this. During the autumn 2010, we conducted human rights courses in three big cities in Norway: Oslo; Tromsø and Trondheim. Participants were teachers in civics at high school level, including those teaching “Politics and human rights”.

We found that around 75 per cent of teachers neither had formal education nor had attended courses in human rights. 40 per cent said that it is difficult to teach human rights, while 20 per cent were unsure or did not answer. On the other hand, all of them communicated that it is important indeed that pupils learn about human rights because “such knowledge creates positive attitudes and tolerance, combats discrimination, leads to active citizenship and democratic understanding”.

It seems to be a paradox that Norwegian educational authorities urge schools to teach human rights without ensuring that the teachers have sufficient knowledge. Is it expected that a teacher automatically is able to teach human rights if he or she has a degree in social sciences? Keeping in mind the ethical, philosophical, historical, political and judicial aspects of human rights, such an expectation would be a mistake. It is therefore due time for the authorities to make a more solid attempt to strengthen such learning in Norway. National actors, like The National Institution of Human Rights, should also join in. Creation of more courses in human rights, integration of the subject into teacher education and quality assurance of the school textbooks should be first priorities. The experiences of the non-governmental organisations working with human rights education should also be included as a resource. These organisations have often developed good teaching methods by working in the field, whether it has been in conflict areas, suppressive regimes or modern multicultural cities.

Norway should also give more attention to the cooperation on human rights education on an international level. The recent events in North Africa illustrate the necessity of good educational programmes, which provide people with awareness of democracy and human rights. Our experiences show that human rights education can be a good tool for cooperation with more undemocratic states. Human rights education’s preventive character and long-term perspective makes it uncontroversial.

Revolutions are sometimes difficult to avoid. Still, we have to do everything we can to change societies in a more gentle way. We support Confucius’s 2500 years old saying that education is a preferable way for spiritual refinement of people and for political reforms.

Evgenyia Khoroltseva and Lillian Hjorth
Menneskerettighetsakademiet/Human Rights Academy (Oslo)

Evgenia Khoroltseva
Project manager
Human Rights Academy

Blindernveien 5, 0361 Oslo
tel: (+47) 22 59 40 56
fax: (+47) 22 59 40 51
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