Educating for Human Rights: Asian Challenges and Achievements

Human Rights Dialogue 1.9 (Summer 1997): "Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia"

The Asia-Pacific region lacks an intergovernmental human rights institution but has plenty of nongovernmental organizations. Many among the ever-increasing number of NGOs have learned to appreciate the vital role that human rights education can play in their work. In 1993 Asian NGOs met in Bangkok to respond to the controversial Bangkok Declaration Asian governments had issued, which concluded that human rights are not universal and do not accord with “Asian values.” The NGOs’ Workshop on Human Rights Education and Training linked the hotly debated question of universality to human rights education. The Bangkok groups agreed that Asians should celebrate their cultural diversity, but insisted that deviations from universally accepted human rights on the basis of cultural practices must not be tolerated. When people know their rights, they will develop the critical capacity to discern when patriarchal and political power-holders are using cultural traditions as an excuse for violations of human rights, from wife-beating to the mistreatment of overseas laborers in Malaysian camps to political detentions in Burma to the wholesale intimidation of dissidents in East Timor.

The groups called on the governments of the region to promote human rights education and training for police, security, and military personnel. All formal education should include human rights teaching as well, because as things stand, according to the NGOs, the typical Asian school curriculum tends to favor the ruling elites. Additionally, NGOs should disseminate human rights materials in the languages spoken by local populations and use participatory learning methods: interactive techniques in which students talk about their own experiences to “enrich the process and contribute to the promotion of universal human rights standards by utilizing the cultural wealth of the region.”

The United Nations’ proclamation of a Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2005) said that such education, which seeks to build a universal culture of human rights, is a lifelong process. How can human rights education empower people to resist rights abuses? The answer depends upon the teaching setting and the targeted students or participants. For many NGOs involved in nonformal education outside the classroom and at the grassroots level, the answer rests with the methods of the late Paulo Friere, the Brazilian educator and author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Friere process of education for empowerment consists of identifying problems, defining needs, clarifying norms, and formulating and undertaking plans of action. It is used by such NGOs as the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, which received a UNESCO Award for effective human rights education in 1991. The group’s trainers, using standardized teaching modules, target groups such as the urban poor, landless peasants, and hacienda workers. These groups are then challenged to define their social needs and devise self-help and community cooperation programs to implement their human rights as they have come to understand them.

At the level of formal education, and within the standard program of state-supported primary and secondary schooling, the methodology of “values clarification” is conventionally used, whereby knowledge of legally protected human rights is accompanied by reflection on central values such as fairness, equality, and justice. Values clarification is used, for example, in the teacher-training Peace and World Order Studies Unit of the Philippines Normal University. At the level of professional and higher education, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, supports a program called, Asian Regional Training on Migration, Refugees, and Human Rights that uses analytical problem-solving and legal-skill methodologies.

National human rights education programs began in the Philippines as required by the Constitution of 1987. Its framers reasoned that human rights education and training have both preventive and curative impact—they prevent problems by nurturing respect for other people’s rights and at the same time inform people of the possibilities of redress.

Philippine NGOs were quick to use the constitutional mandate as a moral and legal foundation to build their own programs of community development and practical self-help networks for farmers, fisherfolk, slum dwellers, and other groups. The Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) serves as a coordinating organization for NGOs. At a 1990 meeting of PAHRA groups, thirty of the forty-seven groups polled indicated that in addition to their advocacy, development, and humanitarian activities, they also pursued programs of human rights education. In April 1997, PAHRA held a national consultation on human rights education to assess the work of member organizations and forge future cooperative endeavors.

Compared to the Philippines, NGOs elsewhere in Asia are playing “catch up” in human rights education. Since the Bangkok NGO conference’s call for human rights education, the number of such activities throughout the region has grown substantially. Four countries serve as examples of the varying starting points for Asian NGOs undertaking nonformal human rights education: Cambodia (internationally sponsored); Thailand (grassroots initiated and government protected); Malaysia (grassroots initiated and government suppressed); and Japan (NGO implemented and officially and administratively supported). These cases illustrate the diversity and challenges of programs struggling to emerge in a new field of activity.

Cambodia. In 1993 the Human Rights Component of United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) recruited a team of Cambodians and expatriates with health care and human rights backgrounds and other international personnel trained in law to develop a curriculum on human rights for health professionals. The team faced a country devastated by civil war and the genocidal policies of the Khmer Rouge regime: there were one million dead, the world’s highest mortality rate, and the percentage of land mine victims was also the world’s highest—every 236 surviving Cambodians is an amputee. Health professionals in Cambodia needed to learn how to evaluate land mine survivors and treat torture victims, and at the same time, guided by human rights standards and medical ethics, to provide health care to people regardless of age, sex, and political, social, ethnic, or economic background. The team planning the program included Cambodian doctors, medical assistants, nurses, midwives, and a law student. Two of the team’s members had been tortured by the Khmer Rouge. Additional advisers included a Buddhist monk and a Cambodian with extensive background in mental health. The program of ten two-hour lessons follows an eighty-page syllabus in Khmer and English entitled “Human Rights for Health Professionals.” Two thousand people have completed the courses taught in nursing schools, open fields, and temples. The Cambodian Health and Human Rights Alliance was formed as an NGO in 1994 by a group of nurses, midwives, physicians, and psychiatrists to continue the work begun under UN auspices, and the Cambodian Faculty of Medicine and School of Nursing in Phnom Penh has approved the program as a permanent part of their training.

Thailand. The Thongbai Thongpao Foundation (TTF) brings legal assistance to Thailand’s rural people, conducting training on basic human rights and the law as relevant to the daily lives of villagers. In the weekend Law to the Villages program, rural residents learn about constitutional law, human rights, marriage, loans and mortgages, labor law, and other legal issues that concern them. Responding to participants’ complaints of exploitation by those who assume peasants have no access to the law, the program concludes by setting up a local paralegal committee, which has as one of its functions the protection of villagers against arbitrary arrest. It provides participants with a photo identification card including their personal lawyer’s name and a listing of the rights of suspects: the right to silence, to legal assistance, to know the charges against them, and to bail. The TTF program is based on the theory that people have a specific right to know all their rights, and it has been emulated elsewhere. Its founder, Thongbai Thongpao, was given the Magsaysay Award (Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize) in recognition of the “use of his legal skills and pen to defend those who have ‘less in life and thus need more in law.’”

Malaysia. According to Irene Fernandez, founder of Tenaganita (“women’s force”), human rights education undertaken by advocacy and activist NGOs can be dangerous. Tenaganita pursues a “holistic” approach: activism, humanitarian service, and informal teaching are tied together, affecting the full array of political, economic, and social rights. Tenaganita provides educational programs on women and AIDS, a halfway house for health recovery, a drop-in counseling center, and a human rights education and leadership training program. It introduces feminist ideas and human rights principles into a largely Muslim culture. While monitoring the welfare of legal and illegal female migrant workers, it traced major health problems to government camps where undocumented laborers are detained. For publishing a report on conditions in these centers, Fernandez was criminally charged and is currently on trial for maligning “the good name of Malaysia in the eyes of the world.” The case is to be decided in October. Tenaganita argues that the Malaysian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, should protect its report, which is truthful and calls for a humane policy for the recruitment and employment of foreign labor. Fernandez says that while her trial shows that human rights education can be risky, it also serves to illustrate an important principle of Tenaganita’s educational program: namely, that workers are not just human resources and economic units; they are human beings and must be treated with dignity and accorded their human rights.

Japan: In 1994 an Osaka real estate agent was accused of discriminatory practices for trying to trace the boundaries of a Burakumin (a minority population in Japan) neighborhood. After a complaint of discriminatory business practices was filed by a citizen in the Buraku community, the agent and a company official were ordered by a commissioner of the Civil Liberties Bureau “to study the Buraku issue” under the guidance of the Buraku Liberation League, an NGO dedicated to ending discrimination against the Burakumin and other minorities. While there are no official sanctions against discrimination, the agent and official, to save face, complied with the order. League educators eventually concluded that the agent and official who completed the Dowa, or “enlightenment,” education course had demonstrated changed attitudes and modified behavior. Privately conducted but administratively ordered Dowa education has proved a useful informal remedy for such discriminatory transgressions. (See article below for more on Dowa education.)

In general, social science research findings suggest that it is easier to introduce innovation and change into groups through reliance on in-group participation than through outsiders. Philippine experience and the profiles of NGO educational programs in other Asian countries suggest that change favoring human rights values will more likely be accepted when indigenous NGOs are the principal agents of change; teaching programs are participatory; human rights education addresses community problems in practical terms supplying remedial options; and the rights of human rights educators and students are respected and protected.

Read More: Human Rights, Education, Cultural RightsHuman Rights, United Nations, , Asia, Southeast Asia

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