© Illustration by Siiri Taimla

© Illustration by Siiri Taimla

Why do we need EDC/HRE?

by Rui Gomes



Where are we now with EDC/HRE with young people? Do we still need it?

Human rights education and education for democratic citizenship, because they share fundamentally similar objectives, approaches and values (while also being distinct), remain as important to young people as they have ever been – probably more than ever before in this century. This conclusion is dictated by reality more than anything else. The realisation that Europe is in the most serious human rights crisis since the cold war and the concern that our democracies can go backwards raise more than alarm bells about how democracy and human rights are being practised: they should also be understood as a fundamental concern about our societies’ capacity to renew democracy and to renew commitments to universal human rights.

The hesitations and tensions that cut into the flesh of many European societies about combining universal human rights values with national or cultural particularisms (or patriotisms) – freedom free from solidarity or freedom with solidarity – are a stark reminder that human rights and democracy are not innate – not even to Europeans (!). The ritual proclamation of human rights as part of European values does not make them better known, respected or understood, unless we apply a strictly critical-thinking approach. We have too often entertained fictional stories about human rights education. These stories are supported by consensus about the importance of human rights education and about its role in the founding of a common ethical framework above national educational priorities. This is visible in recent documents such as the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education or the Competences for Democratic Culture, but also in various commitments, notably the Council of Europe Action Plan against Violent Extremism and Radicalisation Leading to Terrorism. But, as the reviews of the application of the charter testify, the reality is much more diverse: progress is observed but regress is also present – a lot more can be done, and better.

Learning and applying human rights and democracy are effective ways of preventing violence, radicalisation and terrorism. Indeed, they are recognised as the life insurance of democratic societies, respectful of the equal dignity of every human being. But this recognition is also, implicitly, the admission that the practice of human rights education has remained secondary to many other priorities of educational programmes and policies. The utilitarian understandings of its function, for example to foster employability and to prevent radicalisation, do not really contribute to the recognition and development of its role in supporting children and young people in learning about, learning through and learning for human rights. In other words, to support the understanding of human rights as a “network of interlocking attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, norms and regulations” as part of the foundations of living together.

Human rights education is therefore not made irrelevant because of its supposedly widespread practice nor by its replacement by any other programme. And while it is not necessary to have specifically labelled courses or programmes about human rights education, it remains fundamentally more important than ever that young people have possibilities to learn and practise human rights values. Clearly and explicitly.

The call of the conference, Learning to Live Together: a Shared Commitment to Democracy, for a renewed commitment of the Council of Europe member states to human rights education is more than just a call for the current programmes to continue, but also for them to be extended to other groups of learners and to be deepened, especially in recognition and support by public authorities. It is also the admission that what we have may be good, but it is not sufficient.

The feedback we receive from non-governmental youth partners in the Human Rights Education Youth Programme testify to the same need: their actions are often ignored, sometimes recognised and seldom supported. In several situations their work is also a risk: we are especially concerned by testimonies of practitioners who are afraid of openly addressing human rights issues, in both school and out-of-school contexts. Self-censorship is of course understandable as a protection attitude. But it remains deeply unsettling to any educator or human rights activist because it is an indicator of the state of human rights education for many practitioners: lauded in international human rights fora but largely ignored or neglected in specific educational and social contexts.

There are also very successful examples of policy and practice taking good account of human rights education with young people – the No Hate Speech Movement campaign has also been an excellent occasion to popularise what human rights education is about – but, all in all, this also confirms the appropriateness, the relevance and the necessity to address human rights in an explicit manner with young people. Because there cannot be human rights education without human rights.

The democratisation of human rights is probably the most important mission for human rights education in the 21st century.

© Illustration by Siiri Taimla

In your opinion, does EDC/HRE nowadays respond to the needs and realities of young people? How to make it possible?

Young people across Europe are concerned about their future, about succeeding in their transition to being autonomous adults aspiring to pursue their academic and professional dreams and aspirations. But this is not all. Young people, more than any other age group, are also concerned about pursuing and realising their dreams and aspirations in shaping a society according to their values, not only having their aspirations shaped by the realities of markets and performance in complex societies. Building and living social relationships differently remain appealing priorities, which, nowadays, also have to include the relationship with the preceding generation and the one coming after us, and with the planet itself. Human rights education provides the necessary orientations for a globalised conscience; also when that conscience manifests itself in anxiety and phobia, the awareness of the fundamental equality in the dignity of all human beings sets the boundaries of the debate. It also plays a fundamental role in reassuring young people who find themselves in vulnerable situations, either because of the view of the majority of society on their identity or status, their socioeconomic situation or the precariousness of the formal links with the societies in which they live.

For these young people, as for many other people in similar situations, human rights are a guarantee. And human rights education offers the possibility for young people to be active protagonists in their struggle for emancipation and to strengthen the ties that unite them. The symbiotic relationship between learning “about”, learning “for” and learning “through” human rights is what makes its strength, including strength in the relationship between learners and facilitators of learning. Preserving that relationship is thus essential for the discourse of human rights education to be credible and to be taken up by young people themselves.

Young people nowadays seem to be very responsive when it comes to (possible) human rights violations: they organise and participate in manifestations, social activism, self-organised citizen groups, etc. Is there any role for EDC/HRE in order to support it? If yes, how do you see this role?

Human rights education is also about learning for human rights: in other words to support young people to adopt human rights in their daily lives and actions, and to take action for everyone’s human rights. The awareness of the universality of human rights and the knowledge of what they represent in both a globalised and polarised world are important to make mobilisation for the specific concerns of young people a concern for everyone’s human rights. Human rights education is an opportunity for associating other young people in collective causes and especially to place those causes in the global human rights struggles. This is less obvious than it seems, because the context for human rights values across the world is being questioned by attacks on human rights, human rights defenders and the values of a human rights culture.

This is precisely what makes human rights education precious for human rights work: the awareness that no matter how small or localised the cause is, the greater concerns are important for all humanity and can be supported by the framework of the International Bill of Human Rights. The legitimacy and the impact of social activism will be reinforced if grounded in a human rights framework which includes non-violence, participation and responsibility for one’s own actions.

What, in your opinion, should be the focus of EDC/HRE in Europe nowadays? Where should “we go with it”?

Human rights education is still promoted and practised very diversely across Europe: it is ignored and supported, it is overlooked and it is praised. Some practitioners place the emphasis on the process of learning in and through human rights, while others still give primacy to knowledge about human rights and formal citizenship matters. Re-focusing human rights education should be different for all practitioners, especially if we bear in mind the participatory and holistic approaches to human rights education.

There are nonetheless two major areas of concern and action for youth and education actors:

Digital citizenship education, consisting mostly of an updating and extending of human rights education to the digital world. This became more apparent through the No Hate Speech Movement campaign for human rights online and the realisation that online space is increasingly a domain where human rights are contested, abused and also promoted. These two dimensions – what are our human rights online and how digital space can support human rights education – are increasingly important and should also integrate the complicated task of learning internet governance, namely when it will make sense to speak of democratic governance of the internet. This question also goes far beyond the internet as such; it is the future of democracies and democratic governance that are at stake. For younger generations the digital dimensions of citizenship will shape their understanding of democratic citizenship and human rights altogether.

Critical thinking – “finding relevant information, appraising evidence critically, being aware of preconceptions and biases, recognising forms of manipulation, and making decisions on the basis of reasoned judgement” are part of what Compass presents as part of critical thinking in human rights education. The unrestricted access to multiple sources of information, the blurring of the borders between information and entertainment, the proliferation and impact of fake news – not to talk about “alternative facts” – make the development of autonomous, critical and informed opinions by young people more important than ever. The purpose of human rights is not about learning what is right or false, but of enabling the development of skills for young people to make up their minds and to contribute in their own way to a culture of human rights, especially making human rights holders aware of their rights and ways to claim them from duty bearers.[1] Critical thinking is not a mission that is exclusive of human rights education programmes, it needs to be supported by other disciplines of education and learning. Its necessity for human rights education is also a permanent reminder that human rights education is not about framing what children and young people should think but supporting them in making conscious decisions related to what and how they learn.

In some places in Europe it is tough to implement EDC/HRE programmes that are free from bias and political pressure. How can young people advocate for EDC/HRE in their communities/countries?

The framework provided by the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship is probably the most useful document and process for soft advocacy for the EDC/HRE. The charter has been consensually adopted by the Committee of Ministers and its relevance has been consistently reaffirmed in the two implementation reviews and conferences, the last of which was held in June 2017. It has also been further strengthened by various action plans also endorsed by the Committee of Ministers, such as the Action Plan on combating violent extremism and radicalisation and the Action Plan on building inclusive societies. The political support expressed towards the framework of Competences for Democratic Culture is further evidence that there is a wide consensus about the importance of EDC/HRE for the sustainability of open democratic societies that are respectful of diversity.

The problem seems to be in translating this commitment into the realities and priorities of education, youth and human rights policies and programmes by member states and other stakeholders – and, partly, of knowing who is responsible for it.

The charter is thus most useful because it provides a definition of content and purpose, proposes areas of action in all education fields and sectors and, for youth and other non-governmental organisations, recognises their role and asks for support of their activities. Even if it seems very distant, students and youth organisations can use the charter to ask for more or better EDC/HRE, for being able to access the school environment to practise human rights education and to advocate for youth activities and projects that are based on and promote human rights education. In full confidence and without fear. We must not expect that all education and youth authorities know about human rights education or understand their own role in promoting it.

The charter is useful for that. Its usefulness must be complemented by also relating to national bills, laws and programmes on human rights; this will make any advocacy action more effective and meaningful.

© Illustration by Siiri Taimla

Young people/youth organisations seem not to be very knowledgeable about the Council of Europe Charter on EDC/HRE. Do you think we still need policy documents, such as the charter? What for? How do you see the future of it?

I believe it is very important for all stakeholders in education – formal and non-formal – to be aware and confident about the right to learn about human rights (the right to human rights education) as expressed, among others, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is ultimately more important than learners knowing about the existence of the Council of Europe Charter on EDC/HRE. The charter is not an object of learning in itself: it calls for member states to make sure that everyone can learn about human rights and democratic citizenship.

That being said, educators and advocates of EDC/HRE in member states should, and probably must, be aware of the charter’s existence because they’ll need it in their plans and programmes for “providing every person within their territory with the opportunity of education for democratic citizenship and human rights education”. Where appropriate, this can be strengthened by the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training.

The future of the charter is in the hands of practitioners and stakeholders: it is up to us to use it, to remind governments of its existence and to contribute to the regular implementation review – the next will be in five years. The greatest risk for the charter is to let it go unnoticed or to treat it as an outdated document. The charter should stop being used only when a better commitment for EDC/HRE by member states is made. In my opinion, this is not about to happen soon. Youth organisations and youth work practitioners should thus see the charter as one of the few documents that recognises their role in providing opportunities for EDC/HRE; it does not solve any direct problem, but it can help in many ways.

[1]. All people, only because they are human, should be able to enjoy universal human rights that must be guaranteed by the state. Therefore, they are often called “rights holders”, while the state is a principal “duty bearer” as it has to guarantee all human rights by creating relevant instruments, mechanisms and institutions.

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Partnership between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of youth
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