All illustrations © by Coline Robin

All illustrations © by Coline Robin

What’s love got to do with … human rights education?

by Anca-Ruxandra Pandea



I met Shulamit Koenig in the last seminar of the Advanced Compass Training on Human Rights Education somewhere in 2008. She was a respected human rights educator and activist, and I was just at the beginning, infatuated with reason and stressed about my own competences. In the final session of an intensive three year training course, Shula addressed us. I don’t remember much the introduction, but she asked us to hold each other’s hands and repeat a vow after her. It made me laugh and think I’ve just escaped communist pioneer vows to enter some cuckoo new age styled story. But I repeated … every single word she said I have repeated out loud. And to my big surprise, so did everyone else. It made us commit to love each person in this world and to start our human rights education from that place of love. It said each and every one is capable of transformation regardless what horrors one has perpetrated and that I, as a human rights educator, was bound to love them. I laughed, but when I look back it did change me and it stays with me.

I hold no ultimate truth on either love or human rights education, and while I wish I would, this article is only the beginning of a reflection on why I think we’d better do with a bit more love in human rights education (and in education, generally) and what is necessary to make that love possible to exist. Needless to say, that I believe some more human rights education will also change the ways we love.

Much of the reflections below relate to human rights education activities and policies I have been involved with in the past years as educational advisor in the Youth Department for the Council of Europe. The critical reflection on them is written in full responsibility to the way these activities have been designed and implemented and with the hope that shared reflection is a way to make the work better.

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  The truth about love…

it’s nasty it’s salty/It’s the regret in the morning, it’s the smelling of armpits …” wisely sang P!nk. There are many theories about love, but three in particular speak to my heart now: P!nk, Fromm and Badiou. Common to them all is that love is an action and not a feeling, it is judgment and commitment, a practice that requires discipline and concentration, faith and courage, the overcoming of narcissism and patience.1 It is creative action, care and respect, responsibility and knowledge.2 It is the chance encounter transformed into a commitment to enjoy and experience the world from the perspective of difference that two (or more) bring together, rather than from the perspective of the one.3 Beyond the fears and the risks, it is opening oneself to be transformed by that difference and that common engagement with the world. It is in many ways violent, for it does come with the promise of transformation, which involves to be in the world and with the world from a very different perspective. I do not hold that it is the annihilation of identity, nor the fusion of two into one, regardless of the romanticism of the idea, I sense it as authoritarian.

And it is this particular perspective of the difference and overcoming of narcissism that matters for human rights education. As Fromm puts it, being narcissistic is to experience as real only that which exists in oneself and to judge the outside phenomena only from the viewpoint of being useful or dangerous to oneself.4 In terms of human rights, this creates in us the possibility for solidarity, as powered by empathy and the objective capacity to understand and relate to the struggle faced by others, without needing a personal experience to base solidarity upon. And it is the core values of human rights which are essential for love to exist: equality, dignity, freedom, justice (fairness), respect and responsibility, as any love relationship exists on that fine balance between the freedom of the those involved, and their responsibility and fairness for the relationship (between separateness and connection).

But how does one expand such love as is involved in love for one’s romantic partner or love for one’s family to love in the practice of human rights education? How do I, as a human rights educator, love all my participants in their full individuality and with the attention and patience that loving an individual requires, while allowing my full humanity to still exist? Analysing different types of love that a person experiences, Fromm5 claims that the capacity for “brotherly love” (love for humanity) is the pre-condition for all other types of love: parental , erotic love, love of God and self-love.6

As bell hooks claims in All about love, if we want to practise love as a means to transform both our private spaces and our communities, we need to be able to give it the words it claims to be defined by, rather than push it aside as a “second-hand emotion”.7

1. Fromm (1995), p. 20.

2. Ibid., pp. 14 and 25.

3. Badiou and Truong (2012), p. 24-26.

4. Fromm (1995), p. 92.

5. In The art of loving, Erich Fromm offers a binary view and understanding of the feminine and masculine, and limited understanding of non-heterosexual relations, which this article by no means endorses.

6. Ibid., pp. 36-49.

7. hooks (2001), p. 14.

 No love without freedom … no freedom without love

I hold freedom as essential to both the practice of love and the practice of human rights education, as I think no love can be called love while it is based on the annihilation of the freedom and agency of any partner engaged in the relationship. We can look at freedom in human rights education from two perspectives: one at the level of the practice in training and in the relationships between trainers and participants, but we can also look at the policies regarding human rights education. The recent process of reviewing the implementation of the Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education and the evaluation of the Human Rights Education Youth Programme along with the discussions in the Conference on the Future of Citizenship and Human Rights Education in Europe made me wonder if we are not missing an essential point and we are not somewhat misguided in our policies.

The aim of human rights education is to contribute, together with human rights-based policies and human rights protection systems, to a universal culture of human rights. I believe we are not living yet in a universal culture of human rights, nor that we have ever lived in one. Hence, our work is guided to the future and to the transformation of the world as we experience it right now. An essential conflict within human rights (and an amazing potential) is that responsibility is placed primarily on the state, and it is in most cases that the state is the one responsible for the massive violations of human rights. The aim of this regular review of implementation is to provide an understanding of achievements and challenges and support stakeholders to identify responses in terms of policy and programmes.. But, if human rights are about the transformation of this world, how can we measure the work in human rights education with the tools of the very world we are trying to transform: return on investments, results achieved, reports on numbers of classes/trainings held, success stories we demand from participants, measurements of competences over competences acquired and how do we know that they (the objects of our education programmes) have truly got it? All done in the shadow of what we all fear: shall we say we did not achieve what we have set ourselves to achieve or, worse, that we have failed to achieve? We live in the fear that the few human rights education programmes we are running might just disappear, as there is always something newer and somewhat sexier to be invested in. This is a prison of quick satisfaction and no pain experience, within which human rights education cannot achieve what it is meant to achieve; a prison for the learner and the educator, too, for more and more they try to fit within the tight frames we are creating and the fears we line them with. And here is where the conflict comes into place: it is states that are funding or are at the lead of this, and many of our member states don’t have the resources or are faced with political contestations of human rights themselves that make it impossible for a policy revolution.

A law and practice in Luxembourg dealing with quality assurance in youth and children’s services chose a different pattern. It purposefully does not concern itself with the measurement of results but focuses on the assessment of the processes and whether the educational process respected quality standards. While it is not revolutionary, it is a fundamental return to the core of education and even more so of human rights education. This is a process that, if trusted and done with quality in mind, is bound to show results, but those results are not within its power. They are in the power and agency of learners and the results in educational processes are not all to be seen in the short-term. Pretty much like the promise of some dating websites offering quick gratification – no pain and less time devoted to building love is false to me.

While we should be impatient with human rights violations, we need to be patient with building a universal culture of human rights. Like Freire once recommended to educators to be “impatiently patient”:

The question then lies in determining how to turn difficulties into possibility. For that reason, in the struggle for change, we must be neither solely patient nor solely impatient, but patiently impatient. Unlimited patience, on that is never restless, ends up immobilizing transformative action. The same is the case with willful impatience, which demands immediate results from action even while it is still being planned … The answer is in the balanced dosage of both patience and impatience. The world cannot be transformed without either one, for both are needed.1

The first Living Library forum held in May 2017 brought a very heated discussion about how we make sure that the tool is not abused, how we (as a community of practice, but as well as the Council of Europe) make sure that no one uses the name, and does it wrongly, an unformulated request for control. The very essence of the Living Library is the free and intimate encounter between the Book and the Reader, in a meeting of what is understood as opposing difference, with the trust placed on both of them to make the very best of it. There is no guarantee that the Book will answer all the questions, just as there is no guarantee that the Reader will not come out with reinforced prejudices and stereotypes. All in all, the very essence of what human rights education is meant to be – a value clarification process and open-ended. Essentially, these are the only measures one can take to ensure access to training and materials, to provide a proper explanation of the principles, to express our disagreement when we see abuse, but to trust in those who choose to organise it, just like they eventually have to trust in their Books and in their Readers. And shall it fail, and it does fail, at times, or does not show immediate results, we should respect the freedom of those involved. We should be careful in our passing of judgments: not everything that is trailing off from an “orthodox” practice of human rights education is failure – much of it, if looked upon carefully, is also innovation.

1. Freire (1997), p. 64.

 To be in the world and to be with the world …

Freire writes throughout his work about being with the world and being in the world as important elements of an education of liberation. This is essential and fundamental to human rights education: to learn the world and learn to be in it. Meaning that in order to transform this world and its oppressions, we need to critically assess it and claim or exercise our power to engage with it. It is not only fundamental to human rights education to understand the role of the state in protection, but to understand our power and capacity in relation to it. That understanding transforms us from objects granted rights into holders of human rights. But this is only step one, the second step is to act upon this power. We should teach the means of action that the current human rights system provides, but we should not restrict the creativity and imagination of the learner to these means alone. While human rights education provides a safe space to practise and to master skills, it is only in the actions in the real world of the learners that these rights can be truly exercised. For a long period, I wasn’t able to engage in the long and never-ending discussions contesting human rights because I’d felt we were stuck in a discussion that does not take us further. But looking back, it is these particular discussions that allowed me to move from a rather nationalist view of the world to an embrace of human rights. Not engaging in the discussions over the very nature of human rights, their applicability and making it a discussion of “either or …” will make human rights education a declarative fixed practice.1

I think we must trust participants in human rights education projects and programmes more. In my latest practice, particularly because we wanted to ensure results, we have become so precise in our lists of criteria for the actions of the participants, that there was little room for creativity or capacity to meet all these criteria. And looking back now, I understand it was not only a denial of the agency of the learner, but also a denial of the knowledge that the learner had about their own environment. And here is where there is a need to allow more freedom and agency to both learners and trainers/teachers, otherwise this becomes a mechanised practice where not only does one not have freedom, but one also does not take responsibility in the educational practice.

If we are human rights educators, we must take responsibility for the world as it is right now, and we must take responsibility for the educational practice we engage with. We need to recognise that it stems out of the power we have as educators in relation to the learners, and if we are to be truthful to empowerment, we ought to learn and practice sharing this power with the learners by allowing trust and being committed to love them in their quest for transformation and in their capacity to transform the world as they engage with it. Furthermore, this is also a question of policy, as educators work in contexts that are regulated and have a heavy influence on the educational practice, so the responsibility should not be placed only on learners and educators, but on the entire system.

1. Zembylas (2017).

 The great escape …

is not the promise of either human rights or human rights education. Events in Europe in the past years, mainly an increase in terrorist attacks in western Europe and the rise of populism, have led to more political statements and policies that call upon the importance of citizenship and human rights education.1 This is an important and admirable development, however it is not always followed by the necessary measures to strengthen the practice of education, neither is it necessarily endorsed at national level where more organisations are faced with opposition, as the “Report on the state of citizenship and human rights education” shows. If we are to reap the results of human rights education, commitment at state and international level is needed, but it also requires the consistent follow-up in terms of creating systems of support for the work to be done and the necessary patience that the results will not be seen immediately. Eventually, the ultimate measure for the results of human rights education is in the numbers of human rights violations, in the acts of solidarity and in responses to discrimination in the world we live in. For that to happen, our intermediate measures can only be the quality and quantity of processes for which we should recall that teachers, trainers and others involved in delivering these processes are also learners. For the practice of human rights education, this could entail a freer and more inclusive space, where it is easier to be a learning practitioner.

The No Hate Speech Movement youth campaign is perhaps the only space where the word love has been explicitly used in a consistent manner in a drive to appeal to a universal feeling of “the spirit of brotherhood” that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights calls upon. What seemed at times a void appeal is, I think today, the need to counter a narrative of hate, discrimination and oppression, with a vision of what the world could be. This is what is meant in Compass by human rights education being learning for human rights, this emphasis on critical action that is needed from both learners and educators alike. While we talk about emotions and feelings in human rights education, we don’t talk about love and its meaning, as if this was a private area that is not to be discussed in public, just as much as in some contexts it has become inappropriate to talk about human rights (we do human rights education, but we don’t call it as such), which seems to me to be a concession not worth the value. Perhaps talking more about love in human rights education contexts, as well as about the world as it could be would allow more space for solidarity and for compassion, as well as for resilience. Perhaps neither love nor human rights education can stop, in the short run, the number of human rights violations, but it can change what we can do when faced with them, and our own understanding and use of the power we have to engage and transform the world, not only as individuals but as radical individuals “not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled … not afraid to meet the people or enter in dialogue with them.”2

1. For example, the Paris Declaration in 2015, Declaration on Promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education,

2. Freire (1970), p. 39.

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