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Human rights and citizenship education crucial to harmony in democratic societies

Education International’s Deputy General Secretary, Haldis Holst, has strongly reaffirmed the importance of human rights and citizenship education to meet global challenges and achieve mutual respect in democratic societies.

Respect for each other’s rights - “educating children to be able to live together and to function in a society” - is vital, said Education International (EI) Deputy General Secretary Haldis Holst recently. She was participating in a discussion on ‘Why is education in democracy and human rights important?’ at the Conference on the Future of Citizenship and Human Rights Education in Europe, ‘Learning to live together’, organised by the Council of Europe from 20-22 June in Strasbourg, France.

Recognition in international tools

Holst reminded that the 1966 International Labour Organisation (ILO)/UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers shows that the United Nations (UN) recognised the importance of educators in building societies - teaching is the only profession that has a UN-based recommendation. In that international instrument, the purpose of the teaching profession is to contribute to the development of human rights education, she said.

Education is a right for all in society and goes hand-in-hand with democracy - it is about “educating the whole human being, not just future workers, but the empowerment of individuals”.

Holst highlighted the existing consensus internationally that these issues are politically important in education systems. Equally, global citizenship education is high on UN agenda, she said. For instance, global citizenship education is one of the pillars of former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Education First Initiative. And the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 4.7 on quality education, use the terms ‘human rights’ and ‘citizenship’.

Increasingly globalised world

This international consensus is important in today’s society which has become more globalised and where people move across borders, freely or forcibly, she said. Whilst people may no longer share the same background, this makes life “richer … because, then, you can learn from your friend, your neighbour”.

Agreeing that human rights and citizenship education tries to counter negative attitudes towards others, she was confident that the current refugee crisis, for instance, “has refocused us to look at the importance of education and learning to live together”.

Whilst the phenomenon of having difficulties dealing with a diverse society is not new, she said, referencing issues in dealing with Roma of Indigenous people through history, she said education around democratic citizenship shows that it fine that you are as you are and that the other person is different, she said.

Education unions’ involvement

Addressing the world of trade unions, Holst said that education unions had a history of dealing with both bread and butter and professional issues. These unions have also provided teachers with professional support, development and knowledge to enable them to deal with difficult situations, discuss controversial topics, including those that may be at odds with the values of children’s homes, i.e. sexual orientation.

Teachers cannot do this alone, she declared, adding that they need the support of their school, employer, and government.

Teachers fighting current pushback

Unfortunately, she said, in some countries there is a pushback, where there is a belief that you can make education value-free and that children should not be expose to something they don’t like.

These countries “take away the professional space, the autonomy that teachers should have”, she said, adding that fear can develop in situations where countries may propose “laws where teachers can be prosecuted for addressing the wrong issues”.

Such a scenario highlights that human rights are not understood. “Human rights are not a shopping list … where you pick the ones you like and ignore the ones you don’t like. You get the whole basket.”

As a teacher, she said, “I would like to be able to contribute so that the future generation won’t feel afraid of others, because if you are not afraid of others, you don’t feel the need to defend yourself against them, and you don’t need to attack them.

“If we can break down the fear that things that are different are scary, then I think we are making progress,” she concluded.

Video of EI DGS Haldis Holst’s interview

Background information

Around 300 representatives of governments, education institutions, and civil society organisations participated in this conference on the future of citizenship and human rights education in Europe, organised by the Council of Europe’s Directorate of Democratic Citizenship and Participation. Participants also proposed recommendations for future action, including specific criteria and mechanisms for evaluating progress, in particular in the framework of the Council of Europe Charter on Citizenship and Human Rights Education.

The conclusions of the forthcoming Report on the State of Citizenship and Human Rights Education in Europe also provided the basis for discussion.