Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2004 Issue »

    Editor's Review of The Human Rights Handbook: A Global Perspective for Education by Liam Gearon

    Jennifer DeForest
    Stoke-on-Trent, Eng.: Trentham Books, 2003. 181 pp. $27.50.

    Human rights education (HRE) is, historically and philosophically, inextricably linked to the international human rights movement. HRE, which emerged out of the international movement to guarantee a child’s right to education, was conceived of as a pedagogical approach to introduce students to the human rights system and to the rights and duties they incur as citizens in an increasingly interdependent global world.

    The modern human rights system was precipitated by the founding of the United Nations (UN), and it represents a worldwide reaction to the atrocities of World War II. The UN’s first human rights treaty, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), established that every person, based solely on their humanity, has rights that transcend national boundaries. However, while economic and social rights garnered much attention in the postwar era, children’s rights, including their educational rights, received limited attention. Children’s rights were first enshrined in 1989, when the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) became the most universally accepted treaty in history.

    Article 28 of the CRC provides a global benchmark for the right to education that includes free compulsory education for all. Moreover, the treaty guarantees all children the right to participate in decisions regarding their education. However, the CRC does not delineate the purposes of education or define what should be taught in the world’s schools. More specifically, the CRC does not declare what social, political, cultural, or economic purposes education should serve.

    In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights, fueled by the idea that education should promote human rights and peaceful relations among nations, challenged the UN and the international community to extend and detail the right to education. World Conference delegates built on earlier documents that insisted that education everywhere should promote international understanding and cooperation, arguing that all children have the right to what was deemed a human rights education. Specifically, delegates insisted that all children have the right to knowledge of the human rights system and should be made aware of their universal rights, freedoms, and responsibilities.

    In response to pressure from the World Conference, the UN General Assembly endorsed a Plan of Action for the Decade for Human Rights Education, 1994–2004, and urged governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and educators worldwide to promote HRE. As a result, over the last decade, HRE has gained momentum as a global movement. However, educators have struggled to define the most appropriate pedagogical approach to the teaching of human rights.

    Defining Human Rights Education

    Inspired by the UN’s call for HRE, various organizations have created HRE resources, and educators have begun to theorize about pedagogical approaches to the subject. For example, Amnesty International (AI), a leader in the HRE community, maintains a website and publishes a newsletter, The Fourth R, to disseminate lesson plans, classroom materials, and book reviews. AI’s characterization of HRE, however, is so diffuse that it does not express the unique educative potential of human rights. AI’s website describes HRE as "a lens through which to observe the world and a methodology for teaching and leading others." Conversely, others who have expounded on the potential of HRE in the last decade have struggled to disentangle it from preexisting pedagogical frameworks.

    Betty Reardon, the founding director of the Peace Education Center at Teachers College, notes that HRE is often incorrectly described as a strand of peace education. As Reardon argues, the two are fundamentally different. While peace education holds the reduction of violence as its conceptual core, HRE centers on human dignity and its realization. Moreover, she contends, HRE challenges the peace research community to "extend the definition of peace beyond the limitation, avoidance, or absence of war to include issues of justice, poverty, and freedom." For this reason, Reardon, goes on to say, "peace education needs human rights education."

    Mary Braeback and Lauren Rogers succinctly describe HRE and distinguish it from moral education, which tends to focus on the development of critically aware individuals. Braebeck and Rogers located the unique educative power of HRE in its "mandate to engage in political action to . . . enact just laws, policies, and universal covenants to protect human rights." To this end, they point out, HRE challenges moral educators to look beyond the concerns of the individual and the development of character to the real-world structures that support and challenge injustice. In other words, Braebeck and Rogers illustrate that the power of HRE lies in its connection to the human rights system.

    The Human Rights Handbook

    Unlike in the United States, where the decade for human rights education has been ignored in the standards debates, the United Kingdom mandated in 2002 that human rights be integrated into the National Curriculum subject of citizenship. In response, Liam Gearon, director of the Center for Research in Human Rights at the University of Surrey, Roehampton, compiled The Human Rights Handbook: A Global Perspective for Education to support teachers and students new to the field. Gearon’s Handbook emphasizes the development of human rights over time and explicitly links human rights to the United Nations and the work of human rights NGOs, like Amnesty International and Anti-Slavery International.

    Gearon has successfully condensed a vast amount of information and an array of details into his 181-page Handbook. He offers a crash course in human rights treaties, UN history, and international organizations. Moreover, Gearon’s Handbook places HRE squarely in its institutional and historical context and elucidates the way human rights are best taught in that context.

    Gearon begins his Handbook with a brief but critical introduction to the post–World War II conditions that inspired those who drafted the UN Charter. He illuminates the unique historical moment that compelled states "weary of war" to cede sovereignty to an international organization and explains the way fresh memories of wartime atrocities jumpstarted the human rights movement. Gearon provides an excerpt of the UN Charter and directs teachers and students to the UN’s websites for the full document, a technique he uses throughout the Handbook. This may initially distract some readers, but is an effective way to deal with lengthy UN documents that tend to add unwieldy appendices to a resource. Further, this linking guides those new to the field through the vast online resources of the UN, much of which, Gearon suggests, can be adapted for classroom use.

    In his introduction, Gearon is careful to point out that "UN declarations and conventions are essentially political documents." He neither idealizes the movement nor canonizes the documents it creates, but instead elucidates the conflict inherent in the drafting of declarations, covenants, and conventions. He constantly reminds teachers and students that such documents are not panaceas and that the human rights rhetoric can be, and sometimes is, disingenuously appropriated by nations. He also points out that many of the foundational UN documents, like the UDHR, were adopted by an organization that included only forty-eight nations, whereas there are now 191 UN members. With these details, Gearon discourages teachers from presenting human rights as an ahistorical and decontextualized wish list. He instead presents the human rights system as a work in progress, one that teachers and students can and should engage with.

    Gearon organizes the Handbook by dividing the chapters among the categories commonly used to classify human rights (civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; and solidarity rights). By providing this structure, Gearon consciously emulates the way the conceptualization of human rights has shifted away from a view that privileged the individual to one that recognizes the importance of the collective identity of many indigenous groups. Unfortunately, Gearon does not provide an explicit rationale for these sections, and so the meaning of this structure will be lost on the uninitiated.

    The organizational structure of the Handbook highlights the connections between human rights and the structures that support them. Each chapter is organized around a single human rights issue, including genocide, freedom of religion, the right to development, and children’s rights, providing an effective and challenging human rights lesson. This structure orients readers by providing background notes on the central issue and the international legal standard it evokes. Gearon also provides excerpts from an illustrative human rights document and introduces UN organizations and NGOs that work on the issue. Finally, he offers a list of references for further reading and research at the end of every chapter.

    Gearon’s background notes on the central issue of each chapter are clearly intended to be pithy. Some are frustratingly short, and a few are too focused or idiosyncratic to provide an effective overview of an issue. However, the best examples clearly define the human rights issue at hand, illustrate the historical context that gave rise to it, and connect it to current events. In this way, Gearon presents teachers with both the historical background and primary documents to build trenchant human rights lessons that are placed in context. For example, in the chapter on asylum, Gearon expertly introduces Article 14 of the UDHR: "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." He describes the way Article 14 evinces the "never-again" form of thinking prevalent in post–World War II Europe. He pointedly recalls that "ordinary" Jews attempting to escape the Nazis were confronted with closed borders, while many notable and wealthy Jews were granted citizenship in Britain and the United States.

    Gearon juxtaposes this history with a 2001 Human Rights Watch report that details conditions for civilians in post–September 11 Afghanistan. The report describes how, when the ruling Taliban Party declared it could not guarantee civilians’ safety and international agencies left the country, refugees were denied access to the safety of neighboring countries. With this combination of historical precedent and recent events, Gearon illustrates for students the timeless importance of the right to asylum, making it both more explicit and more immediate.

    The Human Rights Handbook
    includes excerpts from dozens of primary documents that teachers will immediately recognize as rich resources for teaching human rights. Gearon augments these essential human rights treaties with a collection of carefully chosen and lesser known sources. For example, in the chapter on torture, he provides a chronological list of documents to illustrate how the prevention of torture has developed in both human rights and humanitarian law, which dictate the rules of war. He then provides a copy of the communication form an individual must currently use to submit an appeal to the UN Committee against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The result is a detailed introduction to the issue of torture made real by its link to a contemporary, real-world document. Moreover, the lesson shows the way the realization of human rights standards are connected to the UN system.

    While Gearon has gathered valuable resources, he neither offers suggestions for how teachers can effectively integrate human rights into a K–12 classroom nor provides summary questions to challenge students’ thinking. He references various NGOs and UN offices but offers no suggestions for how teachers and students can become human rights activists. He provides the fodder for successful human rights lessons but leaves it to the teacher to discover the connections among the resources. Chapters end abruptly, and the reader is left wanting more of Gearon’s narrative to provide expert guidance in understanding the primary documents he presents.

    While those schooled in the field of human rights will make good use of The Human Rights Handbook, the potential classroom application of the resources may be lost on those new to the subject. Those new to the teaching of human rights may find it useful to supplement Gearon’s Handbook with a curricular unit like The Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education’s (SPICE) Examining Human Rights in a Global Context, a sophisticated and cogent set of lesson plans.

    Nevertheless, The Human Rights Handbook fills an important niche in the nascent field of human rights education by unequivocally placing human rights in the context of their history and the organizations that defined them. If approached this way, as Gearon writes, human rights education has the potential to inspire "a uniquely international, collaborative, and consensual framework for contributing to critically engaged education."


    Professor Henry Steiner, founder of the Harvard Human Rights Project, has argued that the modern human rights system forever changed the discourse on international relations and issues "vital to human decency and peace." Moreover, he contends that the unique power of human rights inheres in their educative potential. As Steiner writes, human rights "provoke discussion and reflection, praise and criticism. They inform and stimulate an ongoing legal, political, and moral debate. . . . They become part of a rich and varied dialogue."

    As Gearon illustrates in his Handbook, the educative potential of human rights is best released by teaching the subject in a way that emphasizes the link to the human rights system and its structures. It is this editor’s hope that, as the decade for human rights education comes to a close in 2004, curriculum developers and teachers will follow Gearon’s lead and adopt a framework for teaching human rights that does not ignore the movement’s history or its institutional context.

    Jennifer de Forest
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    Fall 2004 Issue


    Drawing on Education
    Using Drawings to Document Schooling and Support Change
    Walt Haney, Michael Russell, and Damian Bebell
    Relating Classroom Teaching to Student Learning
    A Critical Analysis of Why Research Has Failed to Bridge the Theory-Practice Gap
    Graham Nuthall
    The Assessment of Complex Performance
    A Socially Situated Interpretive Act
    Suellen Butler Shay
    Voices Inside Schools - Newjack: Teaching in a Failing Middle School
    Peter Sipe
    Editor's Review of The Human Rights Handbook: A Global Perspective for Education by Liam Gearon
    Jennifer DeForest

    Book Notes

    Rethinking Globalization
    Edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson

    The Sign of the Burger
    By Joe L. Kincheloe

    Pinstripes and Pearls
    By Judith Richards Hope

    Letters to a Young Activist
    by Todd Gitlin

    Where Girls Come First
    By Ilana DeBare

    Teacher Research for Better Schools
    By Marian M. Mohr, Courtney Rogers, Betsy Sanford, Mary Ann Nocerino, Marion MacLean, and Sheila Clawson