a Relationships between Commonwealth membership, international conventions, national constitutions and school curricula
Human rights commitments in any Commonwealth country are of three kinds. There are those adopted in the constitution. Recent examples include the rights sections in the Namibian and South African constitutions. Older examples exist in the Indian constitution (developed at roughly the same time as the Universal Declaration and providing substantially the same commitments) and in the constitutions of the Caribbean states which, in the 1960s, frequently adopted texts from the European Convention on Human Rights. A second type of commitment arises from the precedents of the common law which in principle, though not always in practice, may influence decisions in other Commonwealth states.
A third type of commitment arises from the ratification of an international convention, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However a significant number of Commonwealth states have never ratified some of these conventions for various reasons, which may be different from an active objection to their content or the obligations they involve2. Nearly half of Commonwealth states have populations of a million or less, with the limited diplomatic and public service apparatus this implies. It can be difficult for small states to have the input into international agreements which provides a corresponding sense of ownership; further, the requirements of reporting and of overhauling domestic law can seem daunting to them.
But what connection, if any, exists between these commitments and Commonwealth membership on one side, and school curricula in over 50 diverse states on the other? Since the 1980s the communiqués from Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings have included exhortations to members to sign up to the ICCPR and ICESCR in particular. But it was only after the Harare Declaration, 1991, that membership of the Commonwealth could be said to imply a commitment to fundamental human rights, and these were not spelled out with the detail of international or regional conventions. Actually joining the Commonwealth, for most members, had been a natural part of the process by which a colony of the British Empire became a sovereign state, and rarely the subject of specific debate.
As for the relation between human rights commitments and school curricula it is, for most members, still rather indirect. Where they are taught it is often as part of teaching on the constitution, or in such subjects as Education for Living or Personal and Social Education3. Topics such as the Holocaust, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the anti-apartheid struggle may come up in history. Where the constitution has a strong stress on rights and responsibilities, as in India, it can exert a pervasive influence on the curriculum. The same impact may be expected in due course in South Africa.
More usually, however, the human rights components in school curricula appear there as contingent on other curricular or policy factors and do not reflect a broad philosophic or strategic commitment to human rights education. Article 42 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1990, is typical of more recent conventions in stating, '“States Parties undertake to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known, by appropriate and active means, to adults and children alike.” This injunction is not always followed.
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