Rethinking human rights education

'Approximately two-thirds of the class was unwilling to allow two gay men to adopt a child with some fearing that the child might become gay.' (AFP)

'Approximately two-thirds of the class was unwilling to allow two gay men to adopt a child with some fearing that the child might become gay.' (AFP)

I have been called many things during my (relatively) short but eventful life.  Recently, however, while delivering a lecture at a local university, a student referred to me as a "human rights fundamentalist".

My lecture focused on the following question: can human rights be construed as a mechanism to change the course of human nature? Reflecting on the research of Stephen P Marks, I attempted to argue that our evolutionary predisposition for self-preservation has been eroded (to some extent) by the progressive recognition and acceptance of human rights norms and values. Behaviours common to societies such as gender stereotyping, discrimination and violence, are consistently challenged through human rights principles.
Consequently, human rights could be considered as a mechanism to reverse the course of human nature.

While the students were willing to accept my arguments in relation to discrimination on the basis of gender and race, they had significant difficulty in accepting the notion of equal rights for gays and lesbians. Approximately two-thirds of the class was unwilling to allow two gay men to adopt a child with some fearing the child might become gay. I was deeply concerned about the position of these highly educated students, who were studying towards a masters degree in human rights.  And when I challenged their arguments, which were largely based on notions of cultural relativism, one of the students referred to me as a human rights fundamentalist.

I have come to recognise that teaching students about human rights will not necessarily result in them applying these rights. In the case of the students I encountered, they were able to apply the equality provision in the Constitution to questions of race and gender, but were unwilling to extend this to sexual orientation because of personal beliefs that differed from the values enshrined in the Constitution. This poses significant challenges for human rights education, which is sometimes seen as a panacea for mitigating rights violations.  

We often buy into this notion that as long as individuals are educated about their rights or the police are provided with human rights training, they will automatically apply these rights. However, in a well-known psychological study, students at Princeton Theological Seminary were asked to deliver a talk on the Good Samaritan parable in a building a short distance from where they were located. Along the way to the talk, the students were confronted by an actor who appeared injured and slumped in a doorway. The experiment attempted to determine under what conditions the student would stop to assist the "victim". 

Half of the students were asked to talk on the Good Samaritan parable, while the others were given a different topic. Some students were told they were late and should hurry, some were told they had just enough time to get to the building to deliver the talk, and some were told they would arrive early. 

Sixty-three percent of students that were in no hurry stopped to help. Of those who were told they had just enough time to get to the building to deliver the talk, 45% of them stopped, and 10% of those that were in a great hurry stopped. It made no difference whether the students were assigned to talk on the Good Samaritan parable.  

If trainee priests were unable to appreciate and apply the lessons of the Good Samaritan parable because they were in a hurry, my assumption that human rights students would automatically accept and apply the equality provision in the Constitution to gays and lesbians, may have been wishful thinking. When I probed these students further, some admitted that gay marriage "just felt wrong". They suggested that the child would be better off living in an orphanage than being raised by a gay couple in a stable, committed relationship.

Human rights education that is limited to teaching students about their rights is therefore insufficient. Relegating this type of teaching to Life Orientation in schools and law faculties at universities does not help the situation either. André Keet finds that "instead of facilitating the transformative radicality of human rights," human rights education is often taught in a way that "limits [its] pedagogical value". The solution, according to Meira Levinson, is to teach human rights and justice through "guided experiential civic education".

This approach includes assisting students to write letters to government officials requesting detailed plans for improving the conditions in schools and clinics, training them as election observers, or preparing a presentation to their local elected officials on a public policy issue such as access to water and sanitation. The value of experiential education is that it empowers students to not only learn about their rights, but to actually claim their rights as active citizens. 

Active citizens are not born; they are shaped through experiences. Exposing young people to these experiences at an early age will increase their likelihood of playing a more active role in their communities. 

The role of human rights fundamentalists is therefore limited. Trying to lecture students about respecting the rights of others will only get you so far. What is needed instead, are facilitators to guide students through experiential human rights education. Some may ask whether our ailing education system can afford to spend resources on this time-consuming exercise. The real question is, can we afford not to?

Kayum Ahmed is chief executive of the South African Human Rights Commission.

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