"Human rights are our common heritage and their realization depends on the contributions
that each and every one of us is willing to make, individually and collectively, now and in the future."

Louise Arbour
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


HUMAN RIGHTS DAY 2004 -NGO Press Conference on Human Rights Learning, New York, 10 December 2004


The transformative power of human rights learning must be seen as an integral part of building a global community based on a culture of human rights, correspondents were told at a Headquarters press conference today.

Launching a global appeal on human rights learning on the occasion of Human Rights Day, panellists, including the recipient of the 2003 United Nations Human Rights Award, Shulamith Koenig; the Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Danilo Türk; and the Executive Director of the People's Movement for Human Rights Learning, Minar Pimple, said human rights learning, beyond the concept of human rights education, had to be seen as transformative agent.

Describing the concept behind the appeal, Mr. Türk said human rights learning should not be seen as what one learned at school, but as a transformative agent. The last two decades had witnessed the transformation of societies as a result of peoples' acceptance of the idea of human rights. In Slovenia , human rights had been long perceived as a matter for lawyers and constitutional law experts and not for people. That had changed, however, as people began to see human rights as a banner under which society could change. Such change could be seen in countries around the world.

In that regard, he said it was important to think of how the transformative power of human rights could be maintained. Human rights was a one way street: once an improvement in human rights had been achieved, it must not be allowed to be reversed. The purpose of the campaign for human rights learning was to ensure that people thought in those terms. He hoped the idea would have many followers and would flourish.

The bottom line was that human rights presented an ideology that could change the world, Ms. Koenig said. While a number of powerful statements of commitment had been made by governments this morning, the press galleries in the General Assembly had been empty. In that regard, the media had to play a more active role in calling attention to human rights issues.

While a decade of the institution of human rights education had resulted in many achievements, it had also had a number of limitations, Mr. Pimple said. Yesterday, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) had indicated that some 104 million children were not even in school. The transformative element of human rights needed to be realized. Human rights learning must become a tool of transformation in all sectors of society.

How did the panel explain the lack of media interest in Human Rights Day? a correspondent asked.

"I think the answer is very simple. We did not say that we were going to talk about Iraq ", Mr. Türk responded. The panel could have put Iraq in juxtaposition to human rights education and could have spoken about human rights education in the context of an evolving situation in Iraq today.

Mr. Pimple added that, while a few journalists were present at the briefing, in the Assembly not one journalist had been present in the press gallery as some 20 governments delivered important statements. While the media tended to react to events, it had to play a more proactive role in shaping societies that respected human rights. That role must be part of the commitment to spread human rights learning. Without the media's cooperation, the campaign for human rights learning as a global movement would not happen.

If it was as simple as he put it, why had Iraq not been included to make an appeal? a correspondent asked.

Mr. Türk said the appeal was global and its implications were relevant to Iraq , as well. That was why the panel had not specified any one situation. When he had somewhat sardonically referred to media interest in Iraq , sometimes at the expense of other things happening in the world, he had been referring to a very simple fact, and was not trying to suggest anything more complicated.

The implications of the general points made in the appeal for Iraq 's future were fairly obvious, he continued. Iraq would hopefully be involved next year in making its constitution. The question of how human rights standards were balanced against religious and other traditions would be important for the country's future stability and prosperity. While the time would come when it would be discussed in that context, the moment had not yet arrived. When it did, the question of the acceptance of human rights would be among the critical questions for the country's future stability. For today, however, the thinking was that a reference to a particular situation would not be appropriate.

Why was human rights education important and what was not being done? a correspondent asked.

Responding, Mr. Türk said he had addressed the issue in a short paper, in which he had explained that the mechanisms for the implementation of human rights had been designed in a different era and were no longer adequate. The ambitious approach of the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Threat, Challenges and Change in defining a path towards a different Human Rights Commission was understandable. The challenge of implementing human rights had been too narrowly conceived in the past, and defined in a rather technical sense.

He added that the panel had taken several steps forward, suggesting something quite dramatic, namely the universalization of the membership of the Human Rights Commission. That idea changed the whole system. He hoped the provocative nature of the idea would generate change in the system and, eventually, a more adequate mechanism for dealing with the realization of human rights. Once that happened, the issue of human rights education would have to put properly into the system. It was an important step that needed to be taken in the long march towards changing a system that was difficult to change.

Asked what had prompted the global appeal, Mr. Pimple said that if people wanted their governments to be more accountable, they had to know what kind of commitments they were making and whether they were being translated into reality.

Also responding, Mr. T ü rk noted that on rare occasions in history, simple methods resulted in big changes. While the Helsinki Final Act, for example, had not produced much in terms of new standards, it produced one very imaginative tool, namely the translation of human rights provisions into local languages.

In East European societies, that had provided a feeling of ownership among the people. Human Rights standards had become meaningful to the people.

Continuing, he said that while the universalization of the Commission on Human Rights would not, in itself, change anything, it could create a shock in the system that would generate creative discussion. In that sense, it was a meaningful proposal. It was not business as usual, but was an example of "shock therapy".

Asked to provide specific accounts of the recent achievements in human rights education, Ms. Koenig noted that when Bangladesh had ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women it had also entered four reservations to the Convention. As women began to learn about their human rights, the number of reservations had been cut in half. Human rights had to be understood as a way of living with dignity. Human rights were protected by law and must be seen in relationship with governments and people.

A human rights educator, she said, was a person who was capable of evoking critical thinking and systemic analysis with a gender perspective about political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights within a framework that lead to action. The number of human rights of educators had to be increased.