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Human rights education and human rights law: two worlds?

By Paul Gready and Brian Phillips

Education and training programmes have become one of the most familiar features of the contemporary global human rights landscape. Their current volume and scope would have been unimaginable even two decades ago. Programmes dedicated to human rights education and training are now delivered by a myriad of actors and are aimed at various audiences. Some of these seek to prompt and inform legislative change or policymaking through outreach to government officials, parliamentarians and civil servants — or to reduce and prevent human rights violations through the training of military or law enforcement personnel. Others are aimed at ‘in-house’ training of human rights advocates, arising out of a perceived need to equip researchers, activists, and advocates with crucial knowledge and skills for more effective promotion and protection of human rights through their work — reflecting a heightened interest in issues around professional standards for human rights work and questions of ethical responsibility, particularly in field operations. The emergence of university-based human rights practice curriculum in recent decades, where students learn not only about international standards, but also about research methodologies and campaigning and advocacy strategies in preparation for careers in the human rights sector, has also extended our understanding of the possibilities for human rights education and training.


In a Special Issue of the Journal of Human Rights Practice, the editors were keen to examine the variety of positions thinkers, activists, and educators have staked out on the question of what might be described as the ‘right relationship’ of human rights education programming to the international human rights legal framework. Is international human rights law — as expressed in the canon of United Nations and regional treaties and then informing other standards — the indisputable basis for the global human rights project and therefore a foundation in which all education interventions must be grounded if they are to have coherence, rigor, and legitimacy? Or, as often seems the case in much writing and talking about human rights education, should the field’s relationship to that defining architecture be something more fluid, creative, or even somewhat detached? On occasion it can seem as though human rights and human rights education inhabit parallel worlds.

There is often something of a critical tone adopted in writing and discussion about human rights education when the relationship with international human rights law is being articulated — an insistence that human rights education needs to set itself up in contrast to or perhaps even in opposition to what is derided as mere human rights legalism. Often what risks becoming rather vague talk about ‘human rights values’ and the creation of ‘human rights culture’ is claimed to be the proper basis for human rights education and its aspirations – occasionally with little more than a nod in the direction of the idea of a necessary prerequisite knowledge and understanding of the international human rights legal framework itself. Concepts like ‘equality’, ‘dignity’, and ‘non-discrimination’ get lifted from foundational documents and invoked as touchstones for human rights education; sometimes invoked endlessly to the point of imprecision.

This tension raises a series of important questions. Is a framing in terms of values and culture more accessible for the general public? Is it an acceptable entry-point for human rights education in contexts where there is considerable hostility to human rights but where core principles such as non-discrimination enjoy more widespread support? Are instrumental framings acceptable — e.g. human rights will make policing more effective or professional? What are the consequences of this tension between activists and scholars for whom the human rights project without reference to international standards makes no sense whatsoever and human rights educators who claim that a certain freedom from that framework is both necessary and desirable in their work? Can human rights education stand apart from the legal framework and still have any real substance?

At the other end of the spectrum, human rights education and training is sometimes understood to be no more than the formulaic delivery of international human rights standards. ‘If people know the law, then the job is done’, can be the ethos behind such interventions. This too, surely, is inadequate. The emphasis in human rights education and training on knowledge, skills and values requires creative approaches anchored in the law, but also horizons and perspectives beyond the law.

Paul Gready is the Director of the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR), University of York. His research is mainly on transitional justice, and development and human rights. His most recent book is ‘The Era of Transitional Justice: The Aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and Beyond’, published by Routledge. Brian Phillips is a human rights educator and practitioner, based in Toronto. They are the Editors of the Journal of Human Rights Practice, which has published a Special Issue on human rights education and training.

The Journal of Human Rights Practice is the main academic journal focusing on human rights practice and activism. The application of human rights, and its study, has grown exponentially over the last two decades. The journal covers all aspects of human rights activism, spanning professional and geographical boundaries. It seeks to challenge conventional ways of working, stimulate innovation, encourage reflective practice, highlight fieldwork and evidence, and engage a global audience.

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