Building human rights education through global teacher networks

A few years ago, calling for a more robust worldwide embrace of human rights education by invoking the Holocaust, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid bin Ra'ad said in a speech given at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: “Eight of the 15 people who planned the Holocaust in 1942 held PhDs. They shone academically, and yet they failed to show the smallest shred of ethics and understanding. I am increasingly supportive of the proposition that education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights component, can be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel.”

Few students are exposed to the concept of human rights in elementary and high school, and many don’t even learn about it in college. But, for there to be a real impact, one that can tackle today’s rising tide in extremism, xenophobia and discrimination, there needs to be a paradigm shift within the global education community. And teacher networks are key to making this happen.

At Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, our education programme, Speak Truth To Power, creates teacher-developed lesson plans that tell the stories of the most courageous people on earth, people who faced imprisonment, torture and repression—people, in other words, who lived through cataclysms like those filling the news today, and tried to do something about them. These stories show students how resistance and perseverance create change, and how anyone, no matter how big or small, can make a difference.

Human rights don't need to be a separate class. The stories of human rights defenders are folded into required subjects, allowing teachers to teach empathy alongside equations. The idea is to integrate human rights into the very fabric of what schools teach, not to regard it as something “extra” or incidental to their missions. By hearing the words of those who have confronted injustice, young people feel empowered to abandon the role of bystander and take action when confronted with human rights abuses.

The impact of human rights education is real. Teachers from Phnom Penh to Peoria tell us that by integrating human rights into their existing curriculum, they have not only seen students’ knowledge of human rights increase, but also their global literacy. In an era when classrooms are saturated with standardised exams, human rights education reminds young people that character matters more than any test score. In doing so, we help raise citizens of the world who will hold their societies to the highest standards of equality and justice.

Key reasons peoples and nations continue to get away with violating individuals’ human rights is the populace at large lacks either the knowledge of their own rights, the international legal system that is supposed to protect those rights, and/or most importantly the tools to stand up to those powers inciting injustice. Hence we must start with our youth.

I believe that we all want our children to grow up with the knowledge and tools necessary to be a defender and global citizen, capable and willing to Speak Truth To Power. As Nelson Mandela once so eloquently said “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

Thankfully, Education International and other teacher networks believe Speak Truth To Power is that weapon. But, we need all to commit to educating every student about human rights, thereby building a generation contributing to a more peaceful world.


John Heffernan

John Heffernan is the Executive Director of RFK Speak Truth To Power at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. Heffernan brings to RFK Human Rights over 20 years of experience in development, human rights, humanitarian relief, and post-conflict reconstruction projects in the United States, Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe. He ran the United States Refugee Resettlement Office for the International Rescue Committee in Khartoum Sudan from 1991-1993 and then established the same operation in Zagreb, Croatia in 1995 for refugees fleeing Bosnia.

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