1st Quarterly, 2006 No.139

From WPHRE to ESD: Opportunities and Challenges for HRE

Jefferson Plantilla

The year 2005 started with two major United Nations initiatives. The first is the start of the first phase (2005-2007) of the World Programme for Human Rights Education (WPHRE). The second is the Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (DESD).

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UNESCO are jointly starting the implementation of the WPHRE first phase plan in Asia. They note the situation in Asia as follows:

In Asia and the Pacific, Governments agreed on strengthening human rights education as a pillar of human rights protection in 1998, when they identified it as one of the four pillars of the Framework for Regional Cooperation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. Its importance reaffirmed on numerous occasions, human rights education has been an area of vibrant activity but this dynamism has not been consistent across the region. While innovative approaches are taken by some countries, communities, schools and organizations, elsewhere the lessons are not being examined or applied. In few countries there has been a systematic review of the extent, quality and access to human rights education and of the national support system for its development. Very few Asian countries have developed a comprehensive national plan of action for human rights education. Regional support for human rights education in the schools has been largely localized, disparate, or intermittent. Thus, the opportunities for cross-fertilization of good practices and ideas, although growing, remain limited.

The project will look into several aspects of the human rights education in school system experiences, namely, (1)

- critical examination of the content of human rights education in the light of national and international human rights norms and standards.
- review of the pedagogical methodology employed to see if they support or undermine the message of human rights
- review of the "access to education as a critical aspect of human rights education.

The project "aims to take stock of the progress made to date in the region and to contribute to the systematization of human rights education in the school system, with priority given to countries in South and Southeast Asia."

The significance of the project is in the practical approach to the introduction of WPHRE in the region. Probably this is partly due to the insufficient funds available in both OHCHR and UNESCO, but there will be no big regional event for the launching of this project. It however will attempt at initiating national processes of examining local experiences and developing national plans to build on these experiences. The key aspect of the project is the national process. If there is a genuine effort at the national level to have such national situation assessment on human rights education in schools, then at least one major objective of WPHRE is achieved. Further national level action will hinge on the success of the assessment exercise. It is meant to be multi-sectoral (with involvement of government, non-governmental, academic, national human rights institutions) and multi-disciplinary in its approach. A multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary national team on human rights education (NTHRE) is supposed to be created for this purpose.

The NTHRE of each country will be expected to undertake the following:

  1. Coordinate country-level activities under this proposal especially data and material gathering;
  2. Network with other institutions involved in human rights education such as NGOs, higher education institutions (teacher colleges and universities), media, international agencies (including those of the UN) on the documentation of human rights education in schools initiatives, and analysis of their current state;
  3. Together with members of the regional project team, prepare the national report on the state of human rights education in school system initiatives.

The project is small in scale. It covers only 5 countries, mostly in Southeast Asia.

HURIGHTS OSAKA has been tapped to be the main implementer of the project. It is tasked to form the regional project team. Once the OHCHR and UNESCO obtained the agreement of the governments or institutions in the 5 countries to be covered by the project, the HURIGHTS OSAKA-led regional project team will start contacting the identified national project coordinator (actually an institution such as a national human rights commission or other relevant national institution) for the national process to begin.


The project provides very important opportunities for the 5 countries to take stock of what they have done so far in human rights education in schools. It strengthens links with various institutions related to human rights/human rights education within the country as they assess the national situation collectively. It provides for the development of a national plan for further action on human rights education. In case a national plan exists, they may come up with more detailed plan or simply an improved plan that takes into account the many issues raised in the first phase plan of WPHRE. Properly done, the project may facilitate the creation of linkages among normally separate projects related to human rights (such as those for women, indigenous people, people with disabilities, children, etc.). Many of them are probably UN funded and yet separately implemented, which prevents the maximizing of resources and resulting impact.

The project however is just starting and many factors (such as the countries to be involved) are still undetermined. This project, no matter how small, is a big step in support of WPHRE ? seen from the national perspective.

ESD for HRE?

The flavor of the year is Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). With the adoption of a United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) for the years 2005 to 2014, ESD is boosted further. It should be noted that the DESD was adopted at a time when some people in the UN circle were saying that the "decades" are no longer effective. This view was one of the arguments against having a second Decade for Human Rights Education. The adoption of DESD belies this view of non-effectiveness of "decades". In the UN politics, it is really a matter of which UN member-states are pushing for a particular issue, and the presence of a strong constituency outside the UN system that is backing it up. Obviously member-states with financial and political clout have the best chance of getting UN programs adopted.

One good thing about DESD is that it conceptually includes human rights. But whether or not this conceptual inclusion of human rights translates into its inclusion into mechanisms and programs to implement the DESD is a big question.

According to the documents, ESD is a "vision of education that seeks to empower people to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future." The goals of DESD are to: (i) facilitate networking linkages, exchanges and interaction among stakeholders in ESD; (ii) foster an increased quality of teaching and learning in ESD; (iii) help countries make progress towards and attain the Millennium Development Goals through ESD efforts; and (iv) provide countries with new opportunities to incorporate ESD into education reform efforts. (2)

The UNESCO Asia-Pacific Bureau of Education recognizes the problem to be faced at the very beginning of the DESD implementation efforts. It says that

the concept of ESD is very complex and may mean different things to different groups of people. It is recognized that understandings of and visions for sustainability will be different for different individuals. Therefore, it is essential to deconstruct and analyse this complex concept from different perspectives before it can be operationalized in different cultural contexts. As mentioned earlier, there are many different stakeholders in sustainable development, and each group has a different vision for and role in sustainable development. Some are interested in environmental preservation and protection, others are interested in promoting intercultural and international understanding and yet another group may be more interested in pursuing economic development. All these groups will have to work together to negotiate the process of achieving sustainability. (3)

It is important to note the conceptual link between development and human rights. The UN has clearly made the conceptual link much earlier. The following documents provide such link:

- 1969 - Declaration on Social Progress and Development (UNGA)
- 1974 - Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition (UNGA)
- 1986 - Declaration on the Right to Development (UNGA)
- 1993 ? Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action
- 2001 - Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (UNESCO).

The Declaration on Social Progress and Development has set forth the principle that "social progress and development shall be founded on respect for the dignity and value of the human person and shall ensure the promotion of human rights and social justice." The Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition provides that every "man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop fully and maintain their physical and mental faculties." The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity of UNESCO declares that

The defence of cultural diversity is an ethical imperative, inseparable from respect for human dignity. It implies a commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular the rights of persons belonging to minorities and those of indigenous peoples. No one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope.

The Declaration on the Right to Development states that development is a right ? an inalienable human right. It also provides that people are both beneficiary and active participant in the development process.

And lastly, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action provides that

The right to development should be fulfilled so as to meet equitably the developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.

Using these principles, there is a big space for ESD to emphasize human rights or human rights education.

Human rights should be given appropriate treatment by ESD advocates, if they truly see sustainable development as a holistic framework and not merely development and/or environmental protection and preservation.

In this context, the effort of UNESCO Asia-Pacific Bureau of Education in recognizing that while "many topics inherent in ESD are already part of the formal education curriculum ... these topics or content areas need to be identified or seen to contribute to the larger concept of sustainability." (emphasis mine). The "larger concept of sustainability"(4) is key to making human rights a proper content of the ESD curriculum.

It is likewise laudable that the Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) project entitled ACCU-UNESCO Asia-Pacific Innovation Programme for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) explicitly mentions human rights. The project aims to facilitate ESD teaching/learning opportunities of quality in all forms of education.(5) It aims to support innovative projects, at community level, sub-national, or national level in the fields of Non-Formal Education (NFE), Primary and Secondary Education, and the Media. Human rights come under the socio-cultural perspective of ESD, in addition to the two other (environmental and economic) perspectives. (6)


DESD reminds us of the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004). But there is a major difference between the two in terms of implementation mechanism. DESD has much developed mechanism at international, regional and national levels. It has the support of institutions that work on environment issues ? a very large constituency worldwide. It has the support of UNESCO whose field of expertise is in education, and United Nations University which provides the more technical aspect of creating a network of centers of expertise for ESD in various countries around the globe. It has also the support of the Japanese government (among many governments) which has been providing financial support including the funding of a project by the ACCU. (7)

No such funding from the Japanese government specifically aimed at supporting human rights education under the UDHRE or WPHRE has been noted.

DESD has a greater chance of achieving more with the kind of institutional support it is getting at all levels. Its strength lies in its ability to mobilize institutions that deal with environment, development and human rights.

But of the three issues, human rights tend to be least emphasized probably due to insufficient representation in its implementing mechanisms. In one document that provides linkages among different UN initiatives and programs, no human rights initiative or program has been included. Education for All (EFA), UN Literacy Decade (UNLD), and Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are all prominently mentioned. The World Programme for Human Rights Education is not included despite the fact the human rights are supposedly part of the main issues of DESD and UNESCO is a partner agency for implementing WPHRE. Under the first phase plan of WPHRE, however, DESD is prominently mentioned as one initiative that should be taken into account in implementing the plan.

Also in another UNESCO document entitled Guidelines and Recommendations to Reorient Teacher Education to Address Sustainability, the words human rights hardly appear.

In the United Nations University-Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) program on developing a network of Regional Centers of Expertise, the planned centers are mainly focused on environmental concerns. They function for example in this way: (8)

Promote development and exchange of information and experience and facilitate collaboration among organisations providing different levels of education and with other organisations relevant to ESD, with a view to develop challenging, state-of-the-art, innovative learning programmes;

An illustration of such activities could be the introduction of environmental education programs at elementary schools, community-based waste reduce, reuse, recycling activities or NGOs nature observation activities at tourism sites. Through such sharing of information and experiences, actors will improve their activities and coordinate with each other to avoid unnecessary duplication. For example, it is expected to carry out in Japan higher level education on river functions at secondary schools, based on river observation education at elementary schools. In such cases lectures at these schools could be given by experts in universities, research institutions or community leaders who have been actually engaged in some environmental activities on site or these experts might contribute their experience and knowledge to educators developing new learning materials.

UNU-IAS recognizes that environmental concern is just one of the issues covered by DESD. But it argues that it has to focus on a limited agenda and thus encourages RCEs to do so. The concept paper explains it as follows:

Although ESD covers not only environment and natural resources management but also much broader topics, one cannot address all these themes simultaneously. RCEs may wish to cover some specific high priority environment and development topics in the region at its initial stage and gradually expand its scope over time. For example, in Japan, many entities have been accumulating valuable experience on environmental education. In areas where people have serious concern about environment and/or development issues, RCEs may begin focusing their activities mainly on specific issues given priority in their own region. It is essential, however, to envision the ways for gradual broadening of RCEs' agenda taking into account the regional needs and experiences.

Finally another UNESCO document entitled A Situational Analysis of Education for Sustainable Development in the Asia-Pacific Region (2005) is focused mainly on environmental education. This misses out other educations related to ESD particularly human rights education.

These examples of DESD documents provide the basis for the misconception that ESD is nothing more than environmental education. There is clear conceptual link between environment and human rights in terms of health, natural resources development (which may cause displacement of rural communities including indigenous peoples), and even access to information (such as information on social impact assessment of infrastructural projects like highways and dams). But despite this, human rights unfortunately may not be included in environmental education, and probably in ESD. Some experiences in Asia point to the deliberate link between human rights education and environment education, but there is no clear indication on how these ground level experiences will figure in the implementation of DESD.

The UNU-IAS concept paper suggests gradual expansion from environmental education to other educations (such as human rights education). This is appropriate for schools that only support environmental education. But for schools which are already linking environmental education with human rights education the task to do is to support these existing efforts and build upon them for further expansion to more schools, countries and regions.

DESD as planned is an opportunity worth trying in order to help promote human rights. But the people and institutions implementing it as well as the supporting institutional programs need to accept human rights as an essential component in making development truly sustainable.

  1. Taken from project concept paper entitled Proposal on Regional Mapping and Coordination of Initiatives to Promote Human Rights Education in Schools in Asia - bringing the World Programme on Human Rights Education to Asia (draft, October 2005).
  2. General Information Paper for the UNESCO Expert Meeting on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD): Reorienting Education to Address Sustainability (1-3 May 2006, Kanchanaburi, Thailand)
  3. UNESCO, Ibid.
  4. UNESCO, ibid.
  5. See "ACCU-UNESCO Asia-Pacific Programme for ESD" in FOCUS Asia-Pacific volume 43 for the announcement on the project. The announcement is also available at www.hurights.or.jp/asia-pacific/043/09.html
  6. Under the socio-cultural perspective, the following can be the themes: Human Rights, Peace and Human Security, Gender Equality, Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Understanding, Health, HIV/AIDS, Governance.
  7. The Japanese funding support is called Japanese Funds in Trust.
  8. See Concept Paper of Regional Centers of Expertise, United Nations University ? Institute of Advanced Studies, http://www.ias.unu.edu/binaries2/RCE_Concept_Paper.doc

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