Worlds of Education

Human Rights begin in small places – close to home

published 10 December 2023 updated 15 December 2023
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International Human Rights Day celebrates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 – 75 years ago. The Declaration reflects the highest aspirations of humanity. The fact that rights are too often ignored does not invalidate the Declaration. It remains the standard for our evolution and progress as well as a point of reference to measure our failures.

The rights in the Declaration do not depend on one’s national origin, gender, caste, religion, race, or sexual orientation. To qualify, the only requirement is to be a human being.

Taking the Declaration beyond words depends on strong democratic institutions and practices. Courts must be independent, elected officials should answer to all the people and not to just a few, and freedom of association must be respected so that civil society can enrich democracy. That includes independent trade unions and political parties.

Free trade unions are unique. They are the most representative organisations in all countries where they are allowed to exist. They are institutions of and schools for democracy. They are social partners in sectors, enterprises, and public services. Their diverse base is integrated in the community.

In addition, teachers and other education workers contribute to securing democracy by grooming future generations of informed, critical thinkers , and active citizens. Often, educators are also respected leaders in their communities.

Good governance and democratic institutions are vital, but respect of human rights is also determined locally. Eleanor Roosevelt was the Chair of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration. At the UN on March 27, 1948, she described the meaning and condition of human rights as follows:

Where after all do human rights begin? In small places, close to home-- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: The neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Democracy at risk

In 1948, there were 58 members of the United Nations. Forty-eight voted in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, none voted against, eight abstained, and two failed to vote. Despite or perhaps because of the recent defeat of fascism, few argued that the Declaration was interference in their internal affairs or that prosperity was a precondition for human rights.

That situation has changed. Democracy and the human rights that go with it are in greater danger than at any other time in this century. Not only has the club of dictators grown, but people in some established and once stable democracies are living with violence or in fear of threats and intimidation in their parliaments and their neighbourhoods. There are even some far-right leaders who do not recognise the results of elections unless they win. If they lose, they claim fraud and threaten insurrection.

In the development of fascism in the 20th century, countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain transitioned from democracy, if imperfect, to dictatorship. This shift did not begin with violence and repression from the State, but with effective and pervasive propaganda.

In the book Souvenirs d’une ambassade à Berlin 1931-1938 of André François-Poncets, the French ambassador to Germany, explains how Hitler used propaganda to manipulate public opinion. That propaganda often provoked violence and led to trade unions and other institutions being captured by the Nazis. He wrote:

" The party acts by the extent and vigour of its propaganda. There is nothing that cannot be achieved by the well-used resources of propaganda. It would persuade the people, said Hitler, 'that heaven is hell and hell is heaven'. You just have to know how to use it. Good popular propaganda is that which appeals not so much to the intellect as to the heart, to the imagination, and which pushes faith to the point of fanaticism, fanaticism to the point of hysteria; for hysteria is eminently contagious."

Current misinformation and disinformation recalls propaganda of that time. However, the modern delivery systems for weaponised speech, largely social media, are instantaneous. Lies are implanted so rapidly that they are difficult to correct. They immediately shape discussion from the shops of hairdressers to the halls of parliaments.

Defending Democracy

Concern about the extreme right does not excuse mainstream parties that have coddled moneyed elites, protected Capital, enhanced privilege, and fostered public cynicism. They prepared the ground for extremism.

However, the “populist” far right steers public anger at the powerful toward the powerless. Experience teaches us that when the far right gains power, it is the wealthy elites that win.

We can see it with fossil fuel companies. Few can be more powerful, more arrogant, or more disliked than those mammoth enterprises. Nevertheless, rather than fighting them, the far right spins myths and conspiracy theories about global warming and protects those companies.

Human rights are about a lot more than elections. As Ms. Roosevelt argued, the battlefield is vast. Trade unionists and educators cannot lock themselves into a limited space if they are to effectively act or react. The boundaries for action cannot be determined by the agendas of others.

Some of our restraints come from modern dogma and its impact on our reasoning. For example, we worry about privatisation of public services, however, its most dangerous form may be the privatisation of our minds. If we see a more complete picture than that allowed by market madness, the fight to save and restore democracy, to build stronger unions, to reduce stress, to appreciate the value of diversity, to ensure respect, recognition, and dignity, to embrace culture, exchange views calmly and civilly, and to restore the joy of learning to students, are all part of the same struggle.

If we can see ourselves as citizens and human beings rather than just consumers making individual choices, we can change the system. It will certainly not come from the prolongation of extreme individualism.

One weakness of the extreme right is that they depend on individuals who find community behind screens and connect with others through shared hatred.

But democracy is, by its very nature, collective. It cannot come from isolated individuals.

Trade unionists, on the other hand, are dealing with people every day. Leaders have learned to compromise, to argue with respect and to find solutions. Democracy is not an abstraction. It is their daily work. That also means that they are well-equipped to form and join alliances.

Our societies cannot stand if the public is divided into, on the one hand, people who agree on everything and, on the other, their enemies.

Argument used to be useful, but also enjoyable. That is still the case in many places, but one should never have to worry that the response to our arguments might take the form of a death threat in the middle of the night.

Peace in our communities as between nations depends on our capacity to work things out; to resolve conflict and move forward.

Our strength of the trade union movement has deep roots. It is not based on fantasies, but on the lives and dreams of trade unionists in their workplaces and in their communities. That should give us the confidence and energy to lead the journey down a path to a better and fairer world.

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