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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Human Rights Education

Chrysa Papastavrou

As we approach the end of the Decade of Human Rights Education 1995-2004, it is timely to ask what is meant by this term, particularly in the context of school education. It is also pertinent to examine the guidelines for human rights education in key United Nations documents, and to consider the extent to which their stated goals have been achieved.

The Preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 states that education is a fundamental human right, and also a responsibility to be taken up by 'every individual and every organ of society' with the aim to 'strive by teaching...to promote respect for... rights and freedoms', to be observed at individual, national and international levels.

Article 26 (2) of the UDHR states that:
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
These themes in the UDHR are continued in the 1974 Recommendation Concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms , which calls on member states to provide resources and support for educators to develop and enhance intercultural understanding and active cooperation.

The principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC) are embedded in the human rights education agenda adopted by the United Nations since the inception of the UDHR. Nations signing up to the CROC must agree to children's right to education, 'including human rights education through which children should be provided with information on the content of human rights treaties'. Each signatory nation must also agree that the education of the child shall include 'development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential' and the 'preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.'

The National Action Plans

The UN's Plan of Action for the United Nations Decade of Human Rights shifts the focus from the international to national, and strives to build a more action- based approach to human rights education at an international level.

The Plan defines human rights education as: 'Training, dissemination and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights through the imparting of knowledge and skills and the moulding of attitudes'.

Each country's National Action Plan 'needs to be owned by the whole population' and be regarded as a 'truly national undertaking involving all elements of society'. National Plans are to be 'developed and implemented through a creative mixture of government and non-government institutions and organisation'.

School students are one of the target groups:

Schools, universities, professional and vocational training programmes and institutions should be encouraged and assisted in developing human rights curricula and corresponding teaching and resource materials, with the help of Government and international donors and programmes, for incorporation into formal education at the early children, primary, secondary, post-secondary and adult education levels (Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the implementation of the Plan of Action for the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education, 1996).

The Australian Plan

The Australian National Action Plan seeks to demonstrate Australia's willingness to improve the observance of human rights and human rights education. At a policy level, it is the strategies that flow from this at the school level that can be observed and measured.

In the Plan, the Australian Government has set out to encourage 'the teaching of human rights within the mainstream school curriculum'. There is a set of agreed goals for schooling that would become a foundation for human rights education in Australian schools.

Education policy is said to be 'based on the principle of equality of access to all levels of education' and on an inclusiveness aiming to 'encourage the participation of children who are educationally disadvantaged because of a disability, poverty, geographic isolation, socio-economic circumstances or non English speaking or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background.'

Human rights education in terms of curriculum for government and non-government schools includes initiatives such as '... non sexist education, Aboriginal studies and multicultural studies. Human rights issues and education are incorporated throughout syllabuses covering Society and Culture, Legal Studies, English, Aboriginal Studies, History and Geography'.

However, under Australia's constitutional arrangements, the Australian Government government has had to rely on the State governments to 'give effect to international treaties'.

This article is an edited extract from a report by the author written for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. The report also examines the application of human rights education at a state level, within the Victorian Government's Curriculum Standards Framework II. Readers are welcome to contact the author for further information.

Chrysa Papastavrou has been a secondary school teacher since 1986. She is at present a teacher in the Northern region of Melbourne. She has completed a Master of Education early in 2004. This article is based on research and a report she completed for the Equal Opportunity Commission, where she worked in 2003 as a TRIP teacher.


Subject Headings

Education and state
Education policy
Educational planning
Human rights
Social justice