On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998 it would be nice to say that human rights are now uncontentious for humanity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human rights are flagrantly violated, otherwise there would be no need for international tribunals to investigate recent events in Bosnia and Rwanda. Furthermore, the nature of human rights is the subject of the most vigorous debate. It is important to sketch this background before describing in more detail the nature and findings of an inquiry into the understanding of a sample of secondary school students in Botswana, India, Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe.
The Universal Declaration was followed in the 1960s by United Nations agreement to two supposedly complementary international covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)1. In reality, at a time when the Cold War was still being fought, each covenant reflected the position of one of the two sides: the ICCPR reflected a view of liberal democracy, individual rights and free speech which was dear to the “capitalist West”; the ICESCR represented a more collectivist view promoted by the “socialist East” and many developing countries. Importantly the ICCPR was justiciable (rights could be tested in the courts), whereas by and large the ICESCR was regarded by courts in many countries as merely aspirational.
From the 1970s on, with the growth of the power of developing states in international fore and an increasing concern for global sustainability, a third layer of so-called “green rights” came to be added: the right to development, the rights of the child, and conventions outlawing discrimination against women and outlawing racism were among them. A huge growth in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) struggling for human rights led to a spread in the field and salience of rights, and to greater sophistication. Whereas in the 1960s it was assumed that only states would abuse rights and should be held accountable, by the 1980s it was recognised on the one hand that non-state actors relying on terror could also be abusers, and on the other that citizens and NGOs as well as states have a duty to promote rights.
The end of the Cold War, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, was expected to lead to a much wider acceptance of rights. But although the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 adopted the principle that all rights were important - “universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated” - it was clear that the debates were not concluded.
The old argument between advocates of the ICCPR and ICESCR was not entirely stilled, although it was now often put in terms of Asian or Confucian values which were said to be different from those of the West or North, and which justified social restrictions in the name of economic growth and social cohesion. Variants of preference for ICESCR over ICCPR also came in the form of the “no-party democracy” of President Museveni in Uganda, and the Islamic theocracy of Iran and Afghanistan. Some countries objected that the North was using “human rights” as an excuse to interfere in their internal affairs, and that issues given international media prominence were questionable and selective.
The appearance of human rights groups supporting certain communities, such as the Kurds, or the Sri Lankan Tamils, added an extra nuance. Directly or indirectly such groups might seek the dissolution of existing states, while governments saw their human rights concern as a thin mask for separatism. The growth of single issue campaigns of other types - for gay rights or the rights of the disabled, for example - could stretch and challenge the rights coalition. As more and more human activities came under a rights umbrella might the concept afford less protection, and would those seeking it speak up when rights of other kinds were attacked?
Nonetheless the idea of human rights, born at the end of the 18th century in the US Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, has come of age 200 years later. Statesmen and writers use it freely, and many citizens round the globe know what they mean. The Commonwealth of over 50 members, the product of an inversion of empire into free association, could hardly remain unaffected. The final phase of decolonisation in southern Africa required a clear victory over the racist philosophy of apartheid.
As a non-treaty, voluntary organisation which works by consensus, the Commonwealth approached human rights rather gingerly to begin with. The official Commonwealth declared its abhorrence of the Idi Amin regime in Uganda in 1977, but would not adopt a suggestion from The Gambia that it should set up a Human Rights Commission. Instead, in 1981, it authorised a small Human Rights Unit in the Commonwealth Secretariat with a coordinating, educational and promotional remit, but no powers to investigate complaints.
Although a coalition of Commonwealth NGOs came together in 1987 (the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative) to press for faster progress, it was not until the Harare Commonwealth Declaration of 1991 that the official Commonwealth started to speak and do more for human rights. This declaration led directly to the suspension of the military regime in Nigeria in 1995, after a catalogue of abuses was crowned by the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni. This suspension, followed by a type of suspension of the Sierra Leone junta in July 1997, put the Commonwealth in a vanguard position for rights in the international community.
However, the same kind of philosophic differences which exist outside it are represented inside the Commonwealth. Governments in both Malaysia and Singapore speak in favour of Asian values. The position of women in rural Islamic societies can be tightly constrained. Authorities justify actions which human rights groups deplore in many member states. But the Commonwealth, with a common official language and a wealth of non-governmental links in law, education, journalism and so on, also has unique opportunities in human rights.
The account which follows is of a three year study in a sample of secondary schools in Botswana, India, Northern Ireland and Zimbabwe, backed up by interviews with students, teachers and administrators, an audit of the curriculum, and a review of the materials and teacher education available. A questionnaire was administered to 915 students aged roughly 14 and 16 in 23 schools. It was designed as a key Commonwealth contribution to the UN Decade of Human Rights Education, and to see how far the education systems are currently providing an infrastructure for human rights in member states.
Specifically the project aimed to see:
The results are indicative and suggestive rather than definitive or comprehensive. On this basis, however, we believe they will be of widespread interest in schools and Ministries throughout the Commonwealth and beyond.
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