Human Rights Education

Human Rights Education Video from Amnesty Ireland on Vimeo.


Human Rights Educators USA defines human rights education (HRE) as

… a lifelong process of teaching and learning that helps individuals develop the knowledge, skills, and values to fully exercise and protect the human rights of themselves and others; to fulfill their responsibilities in the context of internationally agreed upon human rights principles; and to achieve justice and peace in our world. 

For a discussion of various conceptions of human rights education, see:


The mandate for human rights education is clear: For more than sixty years the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has charged “every individual and every organ of societyto “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedom.” The 2012 UN Declaration for Human Rights Education and Training further emphasizes “the fundamental importance of human rights education and training in contributing to the promotion, protection and effective realization of all human rights” and reaffirms “that governments are “duty-bound …to ensure that education is aimed at strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The goals of human rights education include learning about human rights, for human rights, and in human rights.

Learning about Human Rights
Knowing about your rights is the first step in promoting greater respect for human rights. All segments of society need to understand the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human rights (UDHR, 1948) and how these international standards affect governments and individuals. They also need to understand the interdependence of rights, both civil and political rights and social, economic, and cultural rights.

Learning for Human Rights
Education for human rights means understanding and embracing the principles of human equality and dignity and the commitment to respect and protect the rights of all people. It has little to do with what we know; the “test” for this kind of learning is how we act. The ultimate goal of education for human rights is empowerment, giving people the knowledge and skills to become responsible and engaged citizen committed to building a just civil society.

Learning in Human Rights
Educators face a double challenge. First to teach in such a way as to respect human rights in the classroom and the school environment itself. For learning to have practical benefit, students need not only to learn about human rights, but also to learn in an environment that models them.

The second challenge is personally to model human rights values. Human rights education encourages everyone to use human rights as a frame of reference in their institutions and in their relationships with others. It especially challenges educators, as role models, critically to examine their own attitudes and behaviors and, ultimately, to transform them in order to advance peace, social harmony and respect for the rights of all.

One Practice, Many Goals

In this new field, the goals and the content needed to achieve these goals are under continual and generally creative debate. Among the goals that motivate most human rights educators are:

  • developing critical analysis of their life situation;
  • changing attitudes;
  • changing behaviors;
  • clarifying values;
  • developing solidarity;
  • analyzing situations in human rights terms;
  • strategizing and implementing appropriate responses to injustice.

For more on the goals of human rights education:


Each declaration or treaty expressing human rights principles or humanitarian law standards, commits all state parties to educate their people about these internationally agreed-upon rights and standards. In the US this responsibility to educate exists at different levels within the federal system and within different agencies at state and local levels. Because today local, national, and international spheres have become increasingly interdependent, the quality of human rights provided in pre-collegiate education carries national and global consequences. Today’s students must understand fundamental principles of human rights to appropriately exercise their civic responsibilities and take their places in the world at large.

 Active Citizenship
Human rights education is essential to active citizenship in a democratic and pluralistic civil society. Citizens need to be able to think critically, make moral choices, take principled positions on issues, and devise democratic courses of action. Participation in the democratic process means, among other things, an understanding and conscious commitment to the fundamental values of human rights and democracy, such as equality and fairness, and being able to recognize problems such as racism, sexism, and other injustices as violations of those values. Active citizenship also means participation in the democratic process, motivated by a sense of personal responsibility for promoting and protecting the rights of all. But to be engaged in this way, citizens must first be informed.

 Informed Activism
Learning is also essential to human rights activism. Only people who understand human rights will work to secure and defend them for themselves and others. The better informed activists are, the more effective their activism. Furthermore, activists must themselves serve as catalysts for human rights learning in their own schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. 


Human rights education intersects with and reinforces many other forms of education, including peace education, global education, law-related education, development education, environmental education, and moral or values education. HRE is distinct from these related fields, however, by being grounded in principles based on international human rights documents.

1.  Fundamental Principles of Human Rights:

For schools the core content of HRE is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These documents provide principles and ideas with which to assess experience and build a school culture that values human rights. The rights they embody are universal, meaning that all human beings are entitled to them, on an equal basis.

Human rights include civil and political rights, such as the right to life, liberty and freedom of expression: rights also found in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Human rights also include economic, social, and cultural rights such as the right to participate in culture, the right to food, and the right to work and receive an education.  Human rights are indivisible, meaning that no right can be considered “less important” or “non-essential.” And human rights are interdependent, part of a complementary framework. For example, your right to participate in government is directly affected by your right to express yourself, to form associations, to get an education, and even to obtain the necessities of life.

With the UDHR as its foundation, a framework of international human rights law has evolved since the mid-20th century. The chart below shows the principal human rights treaties. Stars indicate those treaties which the USA has ratified and has a legal responsibility to implement.



2.    A Human Rights Perspective on Social Issues

 Human rights education offers a distinctly different approach to familiar topics from history, as well as contemporary issues. For example, often-taught historical topics like the Civil War, the Age of Exploration, or US immigration can look quite different through a human rights lens, Likewise, discussing current national or school issues like internet freedom, school violence, or federal health policies from a human rights perspective can add an important new dimension.

For more on the content of human rights education:


No matter what the setting – classroom, service learning program, university, or community center – common principles inform the methods for effectively teaching and learning human rights. These include using participatory methods for learning such as role plays, discussion, debates, mock trials, games, and simulations. Learners should be encouraged to engage in an open-minded examination of human rights concerns and critically reflect on their environment with opportunities to draw their own conclusions and envision their choices in presented situations. Universal human rights represent a positive value system, a standard to which everyone is entitled. Learners can make connections between these values and their own lived experiences. This approach recognizes that the individual can make a difference and provides opportunities to explore examples of individuals who have done so.

Learners should examine both the international/global dimension and the domestic implications of human rights themes and consider how they relate to questions of diversity, economic inequality, and the relationship between individual choices and collective well-being. These intersections provide an opportunity to incorporate a variety of perspectives (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, cultural/national traditions). In addition, human rights should be explicitly linked to relevant provisions of international, regional, national and state laws, treaties and declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions.

For more on human rights education methodologies see:


Who needs human rights education? The simple answer is, of course, everyone. However, human rights education is especially critical for some groups:

  • Young children and their parents: Educational research shows conclusively that attitudes about equality and human dignity are largely set before the age of ten. Human rights education cannot start too young.
  • Teachers, principals, and educators of all kinds: No one should be licensed to enter the teaching profession without a fundamental grounding in human rights, especially the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Veteran teachers present a particular challenge because human rights education involves not only new information, but also introduces attitudes and methodologies that may challenge their accustomed authority in the classroom. Nevertheless, most teachers around the world share a common trait: a genuine concern for children. This motivation and a systematic in-service training program linked to recertification or promotion can achieve a basic knowledge of human rights for all teachers.

  • Doctors and nurses, lawyers and judges, social workers, journalists, police, and military officials: Some people urgently need to understand human rights because of the power they wield or the positions of responsibility they hold. Human rights courses should be fundamental to the curriculum of medical schools, law schools, universities, police and military academies, and other professional training institutions.
  • Especially vulnerable populations: Human rights education must not be limited to formal schooling. Many people never attend school. Many live far from administrative centers. Yet they, as well as refugees, minorities, migrant workers, indigenous peoples, the disabled, and the poor, are often among the most powerless and vulnerable to abuse. Such people have no less right to know their rights and far greater need.
  •  Activists and Non-Profit Organizations: Many human rights activists lack a grounding in the human rights framework and many human rights scholars know next to nothing about the strategies of advocacy. Few people working in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) recognize that they may be engaged in human rights work. Especially in the United States, where social and economic justice is rarely framed in human rights language, many activists who work on issues like fair wages, health care, and housing need to understand their work in a human rights context and recognize their solidarity with other workers for social and economic justice.
  • Public office holders, whether elected or appointed: In a democracy no one can serve the interests of the people who does not understand and support human rights.
  • Power Holders: This group includes members of the business and banking community, landowners, traditional and religious leaders, and anyone whose decisions and policies affect many peoples’ lives. As possessors of power, they are often highly resistant, regarding human rights as a threat to their position and often working directly or indirectly to impede human rights education. To reach those in power, human rights need to be presented as benefiting the community and themselves, offering long-term stability and furthering development.