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It is Not Enough To "Have" Human Rights, It Is Essential
To Know Them And Own Them As a Way of Life

By Shulamith Koenig

09 September, 2012

In 2008, Alongside the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the ‘Elders’, led by Nelson Mandela, sent out a clarinet call proclaiming: “every HUMAN has RIGHTS.” Recalling Voltaire, who was asked “what should we do about human rights?” to which he answered: “Let the people know them”.. --and having facilitated for the last 25 years the learning and integration of human rights as a way of life in more then 60 countries, I sent the Elders a note saying : “but do the ‘humans ’know them? Most do not!...-- It is therefore an imperative to add to the Elders call, loud and clear: “and every human must learn, know them and own them as a way of life!” It is not enough to “have” human rights, it is essential that everyone owns them and be guided in their day to day life by the holistic human rights framework, enabling women and men to participate as equals in the decision making process towards meaningful, sustainable economic and social transformation. We have no other option!

Having met face to face with people living in hundreds of communities around the world, facilitating dialogue about human rights as a way of life, I choose not to engage in the discourse about diversity and/or intercultural dialogue and not even peace. I believe that such discussions destract us from holding the necessary and essential conversations that can lead to the planning of meaningful ways and means to facilitate the learning of human rights as a way of lfie throughout the world. Such efforts, when implemented, will evoke a sense of ownership of human rights, put in the hands of the learner a powerful tool for positive action, enriching people’s ability to live with and within diverse cultures in trust and respect of the humanity of the other. This is not mere Utopia. As people pursue equal participation in the political decision making process, women and men alike, they join in weaving a new foundation of equality for all and the elimination all forms of discrimination…--basically what human rights is all about.
The awareness that all human rights concerns and effective move towards the realization of human rights, --be it political, civil, economic, social and cultural -- are indivisible, interconnected and interrelated, with a gender perspective, endows communities with a holistic insight of how we are all different form one another yet yearn to belong in community in dignity with others. Whoever and wherever we are-- we each have different and diverse cultural affiliations and several personal identities, yet, we all belong to the same humanity bound by the vision and mission of human rights as a way of life. . We may all have different interpretation of belonging and how we relate to subjective historic memories that frame our pride and uniqueness within our families, villages, towns and cities, not to mention religious and national identities, yet, all must be bound and guided by the fully comprehensive human rights framework. We can all overcome these diversities and break through the vicious cycle oif humiliation by learning to recognize the humanity of the other and stop exchanging our equality for survival.

To move from theory to practice it was quite evident to us when school children in Thies, Senegal, ( --being developed as a “human rights city”) who have learned that “education is a human rights”, realized that some of their friends who were not registered at birth have been lost to education. They teamed up spontaneously, in a community of 250,000 inhabitants, and in three years registered 4312 children, so that they can go to school…-- simultaneously they lobbied with the authorities to expand the capacity of their schools. Similarly, in the village of Malikunda, in Senegal, as a result of ongoing conversations about the meaning of human rights, man and women declared an end to female gentile cutting, naming the first girl who was not cut: “Sen Sen “– i.e. “human rights”. Learning Human right as relevant to the lives of children in Thies; or to the future of the women and men of Malikunda; and now throughout Africa, handed them a powerful tool to overcome oppressions of all kinds, enriching their lives to never again – as already reiterated - exchange their equality for survival wherever and whoever they are. Whatever their genes are they are overcoming what some may call “inevitability of nature”, creating a new future for their community and a new journey for their children…--knowing that there is no other option but human rights as a way of life. .

In 1991 in Nairobi, Kenya, an important event, gave more succinct direction to our work. A policeman was sent to ‘observe’ a learning session of 25 diverse development organizations who were being introduced to Economic Social and Cultural Human Rights as related to their issues and concerns. In the mid-morning, as discussion and interrogation were going on, the police man called out emphatically at the bewildered participants: “Stop it! Stop it! If this is human rights, come and teach it in my village.”. We, at PDHRE, People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning, have been answering this policeman’s request in many villages around the world. We continue to facilitate learnings with local community leaders to have them become mentors of human rights as a way of life. .We carry with us the vision of Eleanor Roosevelt who said: “…Where does human rights begin…--in small villages.. “) Indeed.

In the introduction of the learning process I recently launched a discussion about human rights as a HOME. When you are a child ‘home’ is the place where you feel safe ‘out of the rain’, protected from the burning sun and often loved. As you grow older home can be, the memory of a lullaby, the stories you were told or overheard, the cloths you wear, the earth you toil, a book you read, the yearning for dignity, including the good or painful memories that instruct our daily lives --in short, the world we live in and wish to be able to claim as our own. Learning about equal, horizontal choices of decency and acceptance, provided in the human rights framework, we learn how to walk towards a new horizon, to restore or build a new home as we internalize the human rights language as a path of freedom. The word “home” holds a whole universe of meanings. Basically it is a space, where people can be free from fear and free from want, and often a refuge from persecution. It is a “place”, a mind set, an insight to wisdom, paving the road for walking securely with the human rights language for our hopes to become a reality, sometimes even transcendence. Many of us hold on to painful historic, often current memories of being “evicted” and violated and/or evicting our enemies from their homes to secure ours, this as a path to mistaken freedom. Human rights are a home where the dignity of all people is being celebrated, the ultimate habitat of and for humanity.

This may be seen as utopia in a world – a home- that in 60 years, from 1950 to 2010, grew from 2 billion people to 7 billion, where 50% of the population are under 25, all needing a home of their own.. In addition this is a world where ‘social networking” undermines value systems, spread contradictory definition and leads many aimlessly in many directions.

These, often conflicting observations, leave me embracing a truth, for which we have no other: all people must learn, know and own human rights as a way of life and join in building a political movement that will curve a new future for humanity. In a Dalit village sharing with women that: food , education , health, housing and work at livable wages are inalienable human rights they clapped their hands, dancing and repeating these five human rights imperatives as a mantra. .

Many speak of a “Human Rights Culture”. I choose to quote Nelson Mandela who spoke of “Developing a political culture based on human rights!” -- It encompasses it all. Such a ‘political culture’ is an ever evolving phenomenon of being in community with others. of belonging, of defining the other as being fully human; of choosing or having born into a specific culture and/or religion; and most important of creating human rights political movements. It is important to note: A “human rights political culture” holds a critic of the patriarchal-system that we must do away with to be able to fulfill the holistic mission of human rights. Women as well as men must fully recognize that patriarchy is a system where injustice is justice and where women –to repeat- exchange their equality for survival…--a system that allows Female Gentile Cutting; imposed marriage and trafficking, just to expose the tip of the iceberg.

Will it be overreaching or too ambitious if we call on every single civil society organization, local authorities and the private sector to integrate ongoing, never ending process of learning about human rights as a way of life, to have women, men, youth and children empower themselves; move from slavery to freedom; from self-righteousness to justice; and from charity to dignity.

Churchill said that democracy is not the best solution but we have no other. Democracy became a structure rather than a living organism that allows the participation of all, in equality and without discrimination. As a result of touching the lives of so many people -and with all humility- I came to see the simple truth: a real democracy is a comprehensive delivery system of human rights that can be realized through a never ending , ongoing process of learning and integration, at all levels of society, human rights as a way of life. There is no other option.

A final note: Human Rights learning should not be understood as another description of “human rights education”. These are two very different categories and approaches. Even though I was the person that almost single handedly created the UN Decade of Human Rights Education, PDHRE, moved forcefully to bring human rights learning to grassroots communities. HRE is time bound, mostly in academic institutions and schools does not reach.95% of the world community that must know human rights as a way of life. In 5 to 10 years we hope to evolve a movement that will have all people in the world learn, know and own human rights as relevant to their daily lives. They will be able to use human rights as a powerful tool for change, as a strategy to economic, societal and human development.

Our mantra describes human rights as the banks of the river where life flows freely. And when the floods come people who know and own human rights strengthen the bank to revert the floods and maintain freedom. Knowledge is power! .Learning about human rights as a way of life moves power to human rights..

Shulamith Koenig – Founding President of PDHRE, People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning For more information: www.pdhre.org , or write to pdhre@igc.org




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