Chapter 4: Practical Lessons from the Field: SEN Seminar Workshops



The participants of the SEN seminar, representing 23 countries from five continents, shared their experiences in conducting human rights education. (Please see Annex A for a complete list of participants.)

The set of ‘lessons learned’ was distilled from the proceedings of the various workshops and plenary sessions. These summaries do not do justice to the richness of the interchanges that took place, but present key points that were made by presenters and through dialogue. Readers are welcomed to send us their own ‘lessons learned’ for future updates of the Resource Book.





Susana Chiarotti (Argentina), Shula Koenig (USA) and Paul Spector (USA)

A discussion was facilitated among the group about women's issues and HRE, with some reference to the 1995 conference in Beijing. Some key points that were raised: (1) women’s issues should not be ‘in a paragraph’ of human rights documents, (2) there is a movement not towards a ‘Women’s Human Rights Declaration’ but a ‘Women’s and Men’s Human Rights Declaration.’ Advocates are fighting the invisibility of gender issues on HR agendas.



Fatma Alloo (Tanzania), Ed O’Brien (USA) and Deepika Udagama (Sri Lanka)

Two skits were presented. In one, a voter registration officer attempted to register a woman who was in the process of fetching water from a distant water source; the woman resisted being registered, complaining that she had no time for politics when she had to spend so much time on such basic matters as getting water for her family. In the second skit, a human rights educationalist addressed police cadets trying to persuade them to respect the rights of criminals; the cadets responded by asking who is monitoring the politicians.

A discussion followed in which SEN participants were asked to identify key issues raised by the skits. There was a consensus on the need to recognise first the rights of those targeted for human rights education, such as police cadets. We should try to understand their constraints and the ways in which they feel a lack of respect, before asking them to consider the ‘human rights’ of others. Also, human rights education should be designed so that everyone involved has a motive for learning.

Some questions raised at the end of the session included (1) whether human rights education should include teaching about the right to development, and (2) whether HRE should address the issue of crime and if so, how. For example, should we focus on people as victims of crime?



Toma Birmontiene (Lithuania) and Ed O’Brien (USA)

The presenters emphasised that in order to impact society, you need to impact the law. Therefore, people should be taught to look critically at the law and take action to improve it. Second, HRE needs to be linked with democratic education. Part of the reason for this is to help ensure that ‘democratic education’ is not done superficially. For example, a citizenship education program should not only promote voter registration but should also promote the idea that voters can actually influence the system.

Issues concerning the law and human rights in the various countries of Central and Eastern Europe were shared. Many countries in that region are struggling with a constitution ‘that is alive’ at the same time that they are making laws and ratifying Council of Europe documents. A current problem is that judges have not been trained in the application of these new laws and the Constitution. There is also a need to train lawyers.

It was pointed out that human rights conventions can be integrated into the law in different ways. In Austria, the European Convention on Human Rights is part of the Constitution; in Germany, the European Convention is not part of the Constitution nor a part of ‘normal law’ but something in between. The latter seems to be the trend in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. A key issue for HRE is the role of the courts and, in particular, whether judges feel that they have the authority to change laws.

Several problems were raised. An issue in some societies is the unequal application of all types of law. For instance, in Argentina, the State courts seem to feel that only criminal, rather than civil codes, are applicable to the one third of the population that lives below the poverty level. Another general problem within justice systems is lack of access to legal aid.



Cristina Sganga (UK), Paul Spector (USA), Rumen Valchev (Bulgaria)

The presenters began by identifying that there is a great need for new developments in social education in the post-communist context, at the same time that there are limited possibilities to add it to the curriculum. Conflict resolution is one such educational area, with great potential in the HRE field.

An orientation to conflict resolution training was presented. Conflict is usually seen as negative and destructive, but can, in fact, can be seen ‘as a starting point’ for both sides to find common ground, building on their differences. Such differences can be a source of creativity.

Conflict resolution training requires several components:

  1. a communication/relationship framework;
  2. procedures for communication;
  3. analysis of the interests of both sides in the conflict, in order to understand why a conflict has persisted.

Conflict resolution empowers the weaker side of the conflict and can lead to a solution that both sides find acceptable because they understand each other. A good mediator is an educator who models human rights values and works towards a mutually acceptable goal. In reality, conflict resolution is possible only if both sides are willing to work to resolve their differences.

The following points were raised in discussion:



Ghassan Abdallah (East Jerusalem) and Susana Chiarotti (Argentina) 

The presenters began by acknowledging that religion and HRE are considered to be both important and difficult issues in Islamic society. On the one hand, certain rights -- such as the right to education, to life, and to participation in civic life -- are ensured. On the other hand, women are in practice deprived of certain rights, such as education, reproductive control, choosing a marriage partner, and equal rights of inheritance. Violence against women is also legitimised. 

One way to address these issues is to engage religious leaders in Round Table discussions about human rights and democracy. In Islamic society, the goal would not be to convert then but to show that human rights do not contradict the Koran, that there can be common ground.

The session discussion revealed that 98% of the population of Zanzibar and nearly half the population of Tanzania are Moslem. However, their version of the Koran is very different from that of the Middle East. In Africa, the belief is that if abortion is legal, then the society is unjust. In just societies, a woman may keep her maiden name (in order to be able to inherit). Men understand that they are ‘not marrying a slave but a partner’, and domestic violence is not tolerated, according to a participant.

It was pointed out that there has also been a historical fundamentalism in Roman Catholicism and, in fact, in all Christian religions. The distinction always needs to be made between those people who are religious and not fundamentalists, and those who can be considered both religious and fundamentalist.

One participant said that there are different contexts for the relation between religious practice and the limiting of human rights. In one, people voluntarily become believers (and limit their own rights). In another, religion limits personal rights through the imposition of state law. For example, in Poland, where 95% of the population is Catholic, abortion and divorce are prohibited. 

In terms of conducting human rights education in societies where religions are repressive, the following suggestions were made:

  1. Separate out religiousness from fundamentalism. 
  2. Present in a neutral manner various religious and philosophical perspectives on various human rights issues -- including Marxism, liberalism and Catholicism -- and let people decide for themselves which perspectives they prefer.
  3. Organise Round Table discussions or debates on particularly difficult issues, with multiple perspectives presented.
  4. Involve religious leaders in HRE.
  5. Try to link up HRE with the women’s movement.



Nancy Flowers (USA), Paul Spector (USA), Peter Thuynsma (South Africa)

In the introduction to the sessions on training teachers and professionals, the following methodological guidelines for trainings were presented: 

  1. Affirm the individual experience.
  2. Reduce hierarchical approaches in everything.
  3. Strive for precision in language.
  4. Provide a forum for dialogue.
  5. Promote participant ‘ownership’.
  6. Offer an action component.
  7. Plan support and continued contact.



Suzanne Gall (Switzerland) and Ligia Neacsu Hendry (Romania)

The group agreed that human rights education is as much about methods as it is a subject area. HRE works best through democratic and participatory educational methods. Teacher training is essential because educationalists need support in using a creative approach in the classroom. System factors such as ‘testing cultures’ and overregulated curriculum can stifle creativity and experimentation, forcing teachers to operate with a ‘packaged/formulaic mindset’.

Human rights teacher training needs be complemented by a strategic approach to the overall community and educational system. Human rights education best takes place in a school with a democratic governance structure. It was recommended to involve teachers, administrators, educational agencies, parents and community members. Pedagogical institutions and teacher training facilities should also be involved as partners.

The final list of recommendations generated by groups discussion was as follows:



Anette Faye Jacobsen (Denmark) and Deepika Udagama (Sri Lanka)

The presenters initiated the session by sharing a list of organising principles for planning the trainings of professional groups:

  1. Target the groups. 
  2. List the reasons for selection of the target groups.
  3. Anticipate the access/motivation of target groups. 
  4. Select relevant subject matter and methodology.
  5. Plan for impact assessment and adjustment of the training

For example, the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, since its inception has organised trainings for professionals in Sri Lanka. The context was the late1980s in Sri Lanka, following the ‘disappearance’ of over 60,000 people. Lawyers were first targeted for HRE in order to improve jurisprudence; judges were not targeted because they were not considered to be ‘open’. Lawyers received training in order to assist the families of the disappeared and the ‘Commission of Inquiries’ for which there was only a vague mandate.

Next, journalists received HRE in order to assist in the Commission work. The Centre for the Study of Human Rights recognised that giving journalists ‘a human rights perspective’ could help spread information about the Commission’s work. Forensic medical personnel also received training to participate in human rights work working in mass graves to identify physical remains. These personnel have since come to assist in the documentation of torture cases, and child and women’s abuse. HRE was also done with the police and armed forces in order to raise their consciousness about these issues.

Yet another example of an organisation involved in the training of professional groups is the Danish Centre for Human Rights, which specialises in the education of social workers. Social workers were targeted because of their work with vulnerable groups such as the poor, drug abusers and elderly people. In addition to organising these trainings, the Centre took the opportunity of Denmark’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to analyse Danish legislation; thus, ultimately, new legislation was introduced pertaining to social workers.

Other participants in the session shared their experiences. In Lithuania, international pressure was used to create the political latitude that allowed organizations to work in the human rights area; this could happen despite the fact that he government had not actually changed and political violence had taken place recently.

In Poland, both direct and indirect means of education were used. Direct education was the method used with judges, lawyers, prosecutors, prison guards, army officers, the police and parliamentarians. Indirect education was used with parliamentarians and the secret police, in which there were ‘discussions’ rather than ‘trainings’ about the nature of public control and the limits of their respective powers.

Other potential target groups are university students, leaders of non-human rights NGOs (for example, minority organisations), trade unions, parents, psychologists, community workers, religious leaders, teacher trainers, prisoners, media heads, youth leaders, librarians, law professors, young scholars, civil servants, political parties, armed opposition groups, diplomats, juvenile delinquents, development workers, and human rights NGO staff.

The following classification method for target groups was proposed:

Each of these groups would require a customised teaching methodology in the training. 

In the second session for the training of professional groups, a discussion took place concerning the ‘subversive’ nature of HRE. The feeling was that it does not matter what one calls HRE -- for example, there might be education focusing on civil and political rights, or women’s issues -- as long as it takes place. Educational strategies will vary by country and region, taking into account their historical experience and political terminology. For example, in some countries it is easier to discuss civil and political rights. However, special attention needs to be paid to how to address social and economic rights in HRE. For example, these can be associated with ‘basic needs’. However, in the Central and East European context, one should be sensitive that references to social and economy are not misconstrued as advocating a return to communism.

The group also agreed that HRE strategies will be successful with politicians and funders when they see it as being in their own self interest. There is a need for human rights educationalists to networks in order to find commonality, to learn new approaches and to gain a ‘protective element’.



Ghassan Abdallah (East Jerusalem) and Marilou Valera (The Philippines)

The discussion of community relations focused on relations with different groups, namely the authorities, similar organisations, donors, resource persons and trainees. Several points were raised by the presenters for relations with authorities, other NGOs, funders and trainees.

Cooperation, but not necessarily collaboration, with authorities was seen as necessary because of the need to access schools and make use of educational facilities. Also, when working with teachers, one usually needs to negotiate with authorities for use of materials in schools and teacher time for trainings.

Cooperation with organisations with similar goals is important in order to avoid duplication of efforts, to exchange experiences, and to make use of materials already published. Like-minded organisations may be local, national or international in nature.

The presenters recognised that relationships with local donors must be forthright, with clear roles defined for both sides. HR organisations should have to work with funders as partners. Relationships on both sides ought to be characterised by a respect for human rights, and demands on both parts realistic.

Resource persons used in projects should have clearly defined roles, be rewarded for their work, and well organised. As always, their rights as workers should be respected.

When dealing with trainees, one must motivate them to be involved. They should be treated as equals and given tasks with clear and authentic content. Trainers should not lecture about new, participatory techniques, but involve trainees actively. Channels for continuous contact and follow-up should be established.

All relationships should be imbued with honesty, vision, straightforwardness and respect for the other.



Ghassan Abdallah (East Jerusalem), Helen Kijo-Bisimba (Tanzania) and Paul Spector (USA)

Materials that had been developed in Tanzania were used as an example of how to develop resources, including posters (which do not require literacy -- essential for some rural areas), booklets and books. Several recommendations for materials development were generated: 

  1. Use large print.
  2. Use cartoons and drawings unless they are not taken as seriously by adults (because they feel that they are for children). Always be aware that mediums are culture specific.
  3. Use posters rather than pamphlets (they often reach a larger audience, last longer, and are cheaper to produce).
  4. Set up a network of reviewers of materials. This network should be willing to critique content and format before drafts go for final publication.
  5. Use less expensive, glossy paper; you will still reach your audience.
  6. Develop an active translation movement to translate each others’ works.
  7. Adapt materials rather than translate so that they can better reflect local culture, law and human rights issues.
  8. Be careful about distributing foreign materials that are not culturally relevant (for example, Western publications showing materially rich children, which are then sent to impoverished areas).
  9. Remember that materials should be thought-provoking, including participatory activities and questions for the reader. Books, brochures, posters and even flyers can have questions.

One presenter stressed the importance of using poster education programs instead of books for students, particularly in resource poor countries. Posters are significantly cheaper to produce (50 posters can be printed for the price of one book), and therefore can reach more people who otherwise could not afford books.



Abraham Magendzo (Chile) and Yelena Rusakova (Russia)

The group agreed that research is needed in order to help legitimise HRE. For instance, in Chile, there are over 800 programs related to HRE, but no systematization of knowledge. Such knowledge could positively affect practice and help with sustainability. No evaluation instrument has been developed to evaluate the outcomes of HRE.

The lack of research and evaluation in the HRE field was explained in different ways:

There are several roles for research and evaluation in HRE:

  1. To improve the outcome and processes of our work.
  2. To share the results with others.
  3. To help legitimise the work in general.

Some constructive suggestion for evaluation methods were offered. Ethnographic research methods in projects can look at things such as linguistic discourse in HRE and how discourse is reproduced in schools (through textbooks and school culture). Conflict resolution programs can be evaluated by using a decrease in the number of negative incidents as a measure of success. Other kinds of instruments and related research that might be drawn upon are: ‘sociograms’ pertaining to attitudes; before/after studies of knowledge, attitudes and behaviour, and longitudinal studies.

More research and evaluation in HRE would increase the possibility of standard-setting. However, there is no central source, such as a HRE newsletter for examples of research and evaluation that has been done in the human rights education field. Related journals include the Journal of Moral Education.

In summary, there is a need to build communication networks on projects, to promote skill development and foster use of both qualitative and quantitative methods in the field.



Marek Nowicki (Poland), Deepika Udagama (Sri Lanka) and Cristina Sganga (UK)

The three presenters offered their observations and experiences working from within their own organisations.

When the members of Poland’s Solidarity first wanted to establish the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, they faced many dilemmas. First was how to maintain independence from political and financial institutions so that critical positions could be taken. To help guarantee such independence, Solidarity members were asked to resign from the organisation should they become a government official.

Secondly, there was a recognized need to maintain a credible position of independence, a stance that was enhanced by the strong role that the Catholic Church came to play in Polish politics, and even in the human rights field.

The third problem was financial. In order to maintain independence from the authorities as well as credibility in its monitoring role, the decision was taken not to accept governmental monies. In terms of cooperation with the authorities it was decided that the Foundation would not co-sponsor events. Instead there would be 'cooperation without collaboration'.

In the context of the post-authoritarian days, there are more complex social issues related to human rights. Difficult and emotional issues such as the rights of homosexuals to marry, euthanasia and punishment for drug offenders, have necessitated an increased need for professionalism in the human rights education field.

Human rights was a term that was misused in the former communist system. Human rights remains a subject for potential misuse by governments in the emerging democracies.

The Sri Lankan Centre for the Study of Human Rights also struggled with the issue of independence in its early days of existence. In 1991, the Centre was established as part of the University of Colombo. In addition to concern about the Centre maintaining a critical independence from university officials, there was the worry that officials would use this Centre to prop up their human rights image abroad, but not allow it to conduct any substantive work in the country.

 Recognising that international pressure was the strongest ally for the Centre, an advisory board of foreign specialists was established. Internal struggles between the Centre and university officials continued; however, the university home lent status to the Centre, and so there it remained.

Another issue for the Centre concerned transparency and democracy. A team decision-making process is used by the Centre. This results not only in better decisions, but shared responsibility (and accountability) for the decisions that are taken. In the area of transparency, every six months the Centre has an audit report conducted. This report is then made public in order to prevent any potential accusations of financial impropriety

Another area that the Centre is now struggling with concerns the issue of mandate: should the Centre specialize in its tasks or continue to respond to diverse requests?

The third presenter focused on the human rights education programs for Amnesty International (AI). There are disadvantages and the advantages of working with a ‘teenage’ organisation, such as AI. On the one hand, AI has a history of high standards. However, there is also the need to maintain flexibility. AI has used mandates in pursuing policy, which have served the organisation well.

Another feature of AI is that it is a membership organization. This makes democratic decision making quite complicated, often with tensions between the bureaucrats and members. Yet this very tension brings richness.

Organisational size, of course, also complicates a democratic decision-making structure, such that democracy needs to be regularly reinvented.

Diversity within AI -- with chapters in over 70 countries -- also brings its strengths and challenges. A lingering question is should the human rights message have ‘one voice, many messages’ or ‘many voices, one message’?

Finally, it is important for an organisation, even a well-established one, to make sure that it maintains the skills and training of its members. One should always assume that one can learn more.

Participants brainstormed examples of human rights groups that are thought to be particularly well run include the (Polish) Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Legal Resources Center (South Africa), EIP/School as an Instrument of Peace (Switzerland), WiLDAF (Africa), and the National Endowment for Democracy (US funder). Some of the exemplary organizational features included good pay, sabbaticals, integrity among the leadership, membership-driven policies, and an overall ethical culture.

Recommendations intended for funders in the human rights education field were not uniform or consistent:








Fatma Alloo, Tanzania’s Media Women’s Association (TAMWA), Tanzania

Ghassan Abdallah, Palestinian Centre for Human Rights Education

Toma Birmontiene, Lithuanian Centre for Human Rights, Lithuania

Susana Chiarotti, Instituto de Genero, Derecho y Desarollo, Argentina

Frank Elbers, Netherlands Helsinki Committee, The Netherlands

Anette Faye Jacobsen, Danish Centre for Human Rights, Denmark

Suzanne Gall, World Association for the School as an Instrument of Peace (EIP), Switzerland

Helen Kijo Bisimba, Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), Tanzania

Nancy Flowers, Amnesty International-USA, USA

Shula Koenig, People’s Decade of Human Rights Education, USA

Voldemar Kolga, Centre for Democracy, Estonia

Abraham Magendzo, Programa Interdisciplinario de Investigaciones en Educación (PIIE), Chile

Zaza Namoradze, Constitutional and Legislative Policy Institute (COLPI), Hungary

Ligia Neacsu-Hendry, Independent Romanian Society for Human Rights, Romania

Marek Nowicki, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Poland

Ed O’Brien, National Institute for Citizen Education in the Law (NICEL), USA

Yelena Rusakova, Youth Center for Human Rights and Legal Culture, Russia

Cristina Sganga, Amnesty International-International Secretariat, United Kingdom

Paul Spector, Institute for International Research, USA

Tesfaye Shiferaw, A-Bu-Gi-Da/Ethiopian Congress for Democracy, Ethiopia

Peter Thuynsma, Institute for Human Rights Education, South Africa

Deepika Udagama, Centre for the Study of Human Rights, Sri Lanka

Ruman Valchev, Open Education Center, Bulgaria

Marilou Valera, Tribal Filipino Program for Community Development, Inc., the Philippines

Art van Remundt, Earthtrust International, Switzerland

Ludmila Zablotska, Ukrainian Center for Human Rights, Ukraine



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