Worlds of Education

Photo: Spencer Tweedy/Flickr
Photo: Spencer Tweedy/Flickr

#UDHR70 - "On Dignity: Reflections on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights", by David Edwards

published 10 December 2018 updated 11 December 2018
written by:

The 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is an occasion to be inspired by its principles and its origin. It is an opportunity for trade unionists and educators to reflect on its values and the aspirations it represents and to stand up, speak out and act. It is vital to show solidarity to those brave teachers who are taking on dictatorships daily. However, we must also counter those forces that are chipping away at the very foundations of established democracies; their traditions, culture, and institutions.


The United Nations was born out of the Second World War just as the League of Nations was a creature of the First World War. Both were driven by the horror of conflict and the desire for world peace.

After the adoption of the UN Charter in 1945, the next urgent piece of the UN values infrastructure was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was not only inspired by the destruction of the war, but also by genocide on a massive scale.

The UN Economic and Social Council established a human rights commission in 1946 chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt charged with drafting the Declaration. One of the members of that drafting committee, a diplomat and judge, Hernán Santa Cruz of Chile, wrote:

I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality.

Speaking out

What distinguished the Declaration from Enlightenment instruments on human rights, was the experiences of recent history. There was an acute awareness that responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust could not be placed at the door of the Nazi state alone.  There was a compelling obligation of others to act and react.

As Mrs. Roosevelt put it,

“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”

Since the adoption of the Declaration, has everything gone well? Just ask the people of Rwanda and Cambodia, to give only two examples, whether “never again” really meant never again?

However, that does not discredit the aspirations of the Declaration or subsequent elements of the International Bill of Rights. Nor does it relieve us of our obligation to act; quite the contrary, it brings that responsibility into stark relief.

Democracy under siege

Democracy does not guarantee the full respect of human rights, but without it, there is no hope for the attainment of those most fundamental of human entitlements.

There are growing attacks on democracy from within. The time for complacency, if there ever was one, is over.

The Declaration provides guidance for dealing with that challenge in the rarely cited Article 30,

“Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”

That is exactly what we are facing with current attacks on the traditions, values, and practices of democracy and human rights. Hatred and intolerance and disinformation hark back to the poison administered to human decency in the dark times that led to the adoption of the Declaration.

In many countries, once again, the very institutions of democracy are threatened by authoritarians, from independent court systems, to elected Parliaments, to trade unions, and to such “enemies of the people” as the free press. Confidence in government and in democracy itself is foundering in many places.

These assaults are taking place at a time when the immune system of the body politique has been weakened by poor leadership, bad policies and global inequality. This is happening in an unhealthy environment of the “hustle” where far too many politicians are seeking guidance from those who cannot or do not distinguish value from price.

A state of mind

The great French political leader Pierre Mendès France said,“Democracy is, first, a state of mind”.(« La démocratie est d’abord un état d’esprit »). The fight for democracy is a war of ideas and we, as educators and trade unionists are on the front lines of that war.

There will be no instant or easy solutions. It will not be possible to simply click away threats or invent a miracle algorithm. But, in the long-haul, if the heavy lifting does not begin now, there can be no effective reversal of our moral fortunes and those of future generations.

Education International’s governing bodies have already agreed that democracy and human rights will become an even more central global priority. Further information and experiences need to be gathered and many more discussions must be undertaken, but certain elements are already apparent. They include:

  • The need to speak out and provide leadership in the community with broad coalitions that can affect the political debate. We must never be afraid to stand up and defend democratic values;
  • Educating for democracy by developing capacities for critical thinking that will enable students to separate fact from opinion, recognise the truth, and sort out the tsunami of information spewing from the Internet;
  • Assembling reflections and examples that stimulate discussion on the contributions of education to democracy and active citizenship. To that end, a book, “ 25 lessons learnt on education and democracy, by EI President Susan Hopgood and General Secretary Emeritus Fred van Leeuwen is being produced and will be available in the first part of 2019; and,
  • Trade union action to protect the status and rights of teachers so that they can carry out their professional responsibilities to teach rather than indoctrinate, including defending academic freedom, and assuring that teachers and students and learning thrive in a safe, low-stress environment free from bullying, intimidation, and political and commercial pressures.

All these struggles are linked. Among other things, the public and policy fight for democracy and human rights will help clear the space for education to carry out its mission.

As we reflect on the importance of that space for education and, therefore, for the state of mind, it is helpful to recall the words of educator and philosopher John Dewey,“Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife”.


10 December 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration remains a relevant inspiration for educators and trade unionists worldwide, as it guarantees the right to form unions, freedom of expression and the right of all to quality education. Human rights requires an informed and continued demand by people for their protection. For this special occasion, Education International is releasing a series of blogs bringing voices and thoughts of unionists reflecting on struggles and accomplishments in this domain. The blogs reflect the continued commitment of education unionists, in every part of the world, in every community, to promote, defend and advance human rights and freedoms for the benefit of all.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.