Part 2: The Right to Know Your Rights

An Introduction to
Human Rights Education

What is Human Rights Education?

Simply put, human rights education is all learning that develops the knowledge, skills, and values of human rights.

The United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004) has defined 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 molding of attitudes which are directed to:

(a) The strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;

(b) The full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity;

(c) The promotion of understanding, respect, gender equality, and friendship among all nations, indigenous peoples and racial, national, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups;

(d) The enabling of all persons to participate effectively in a free society;

(e) The furtherance of the activities of the United Nations for the Maintenance of Peace." (Adapted from the Plan of Action of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), paragraph 2)

During this Decade, the UN is urging and supporting all member states to make knowledge about human rights available to everyone through both the formal school system and through popular and adult education.


Human Rights Education as a Human Right

Education in human rights is itself a fundamental human right and also a responsibility: the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) exhorts "every individual and every organ of society" to "strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms." The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) declares that a government "may not stand in the way of people learning about [their rights]."

Although news reports refer to human rights every day, "human rights literacy" is not widespread in the United States. Students of law and international relations or political science may study human rights in a university setting, but most people receive no education, formally or informally, about human rights. Even human rights activists usually acquire their knowledge and skills by self-teaching and direct experience.

When Americans say, "I’ve got my rights," they usually think of those civil and political rights defined in the US Bill of Rights, which includes freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, and the right to a fair trial. Few, however, realize that social, economic, and cultural rights such as health care, housing, or a living wage, are also human rights guaranteed in the UDHR.

People who do not know their rights are more vulnerable to having them abused and often lack the language and conceptual framework to effectively advocate for them. Growing consensus around the world recognizes education for and about human rights as essential. It can contribute to the building of free, just, and peaceful societies. Human rights education is also increasingly recognized as an effective strategy to prevent human rights abuses.


Rights, Responsibilities, and Action

Integral to learning about one’s human rights is learning about the responsibilities that accompany all rights. Just as human rights belong to both individuals and society as a whole, the responsibility to respect, defend, and promote human rights is both individual and collective. The Preamble of the UDHR, for example, calls not only on governments to promote human rights, but also on "every individual and every organ of society." Human rights education provides the knowledge and awareness needed to meet this responsibility.

The responsibilities of all citizens in a democratic society are inseparable from the responsibility to promote human rights. To flourish, both democracy and human rights require people’s active participation. Human rights education includes learning the skills of advocacy – to speak and act every day in the name of human rights.

Human rights education also provides a basis for conflict resolution and the promotion of social order. Rights themselves often clash, such as when one person’s commitment to public safety conflicts with another’s freedom of expression. As a value system based on respect and the equality and dignity of all people, human rights can create a framework for analyzing and resolving such differences. Human rights education also teaches the skills of negotiation, mediation, and consensus building.


The Goals of Human Rights Education

Human rights education teaches both about human rights and for human rights.

Its goal is to help people understand human rights, value human rights, and take responsibility for respecting, defending, and promoting human rights. An important outcome of human rights education is empowerment, a process through which people and communities increase their control of their own lives and the decisions that affect them. The ultimate goal of human rights education is people working together to bring about human rights, justice, and dignity for all.

Education about human rights provides people with information about human rights. It includes learning –

about the inherent dignity of all people and their right to be treated with respect

about human rights principles, such as the universality, indivisibility, and interdependence of human rights

about how human rights promote participation in decision making and the peaceful resolution of conflicts

about the history and continuing development of human rights

about international law, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Convention on the Rights of the Child

about regional, national, state, and local law that reinforces international human rights law

about using human rights law to protect human rights and to call violators to account for their actions

about human rights violations such as torture, genocide, or violence against women and the social, economic, political, ethnic, and gender forces which cause them

about the persons and agencies that are responsible for promoting, protecting, and respecting human rights

Education for human rights helps people feel the importance of human rights, internalize human rights values, and integrate them into the way they live. These human rights values and attitudes include –

"strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms" (UDHR Article 30.2)

nurturing respect for others, self-esteem, and hope

understanding the nature of human dignity and respecting the dignity of others

empathizing with those whose rights are violated and feeling a sense of solidarity with them

recognizing that the enjoyment of human rights by all citizens is a precondition to a just and humane society

perceiving the human rights dimension of civil, social, political, economic, and cultural issues and conflicts both in the US and other countries

valuing non-violence and believing that cooperation is better than conflict

Education for human rights also gives people a sense of responsibility for respecting and defending human rights and empowers them through skills to take appropriate action. These skills for action include –

recognizing that human rights may be promoted and defended on an individual, collective, and institutional level

developing critical understanding of life situations

analyzing situations in moral terms

realizing that unjust situations can be improved

recognizing a personal and social stake in the defense of human rights

analyzing factors that cause human rights violations

knowing about and being able to use global, regional, national, and local human rights instruments and mechanisms for the protection of human rights

strategizing appropriate responses to injustice

acting to promote and defend human rights


Who Needs Human Rights Education?

Human rights should be part of everyone’s education. However, certain groups have a particular need for human rights education: some because they are especially vulnerable to human rights abuses, others because they hold official positions and upholding human rights is their responsibility, still others because of their ability to influence and educate. Among these groups are the following:

Administrators of Justice:

  • law enforcement personnel, including police and security forces
  • prison officials
  • lawyers, judges, and prosecutors

Other Government and Legislative Officials:

  • members of the legislature
  • public officials, elected and appointed
  • members of the military

Other Professionals:

  • educators
  • social workers
  • health professionals
  • journalists and media representatives

Organizations, Associations, and Groups

  • women’s organizations
  • community activists and civic leaders
  • minority groups
  • members of the business community
  • trade unionists
  • indigenous peoples
  • religious leaders and others with a special interest in social justice issues
  • children and youth
  • students at all levels of education
  • refugees and displaced persons
  • people of all sexual orientations
  • poor people, whether in cities or rural areas
  • people with disabilities
  • migrant workers

Source: Nancy Flowers, Human Rights Educators’ Network, Amnesty International USA
and Kristi Rudelius-Palmer, Partners in Human Rights Education.


Human rights is not a subject that can be studied at a distance. Students should not just learn about the Universal Declaration, about racial injustice, or about homelessness without also being challenged to think about what it all means for them personally. As human rights educators, we must ask our students and ourselves, "How does this all relate to the way we live our lives?" The answers to this question will tell us much about how effectively we have taught our students.

David Shiman
"Introduction", Teaching Human Rights



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  Human Rights Fundamentals The Right to Know Your Rights Activities Taking Action for Human Rights Appendices