Why Teach Human Rights? The Race Between Education and Catastrophe

By Michael Dougan 

According to his speech, John Peters Humphrey saw the aftermath of both World Wars as a time in which the world was in a state of profound sorrow over the fate of humanity. A focal point of this speech for Humphrey was being able to learn from the past in order to engender hope for the future by fostering the development of an educated public opinion regarding human rights. Humphrey believed the purpose of educating the public about human rights was to perpetuate an environment of lasting world peace. In order to accomplish the task of educating the masses, Humphrey stressed targeting youth throughout his speech. An examination of Humphrey’s emphasis on the need to educate youth about human rights as the foundation for developing an educated public opinion will show an aspirational view of society in which the people of the world would become a higher power to hold governments and nations accountable for their actions, lest the world succumb to the despair brought forth by human rights violations once again.

This speech was given during the Conference on the Teaching of Human Rights held by the Canadian Human Rights Foundation (CHRF). The CHRF was created in 1967 with the purpose propagating human rights education both in Canada and abroad.[1] The speech itself has no date, however, the CHRF became Equitas during the 1990s’, and as a result, this speech can be situated sometime within the latter part of the twentieth century.[2] It was during this time that a number of initiatives related to human rights education figured prominently in international discourse. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) held the International Congress on the Teaching of Human Rights in Vienna in 1978.[3] The 1978 Congress in Vienna is relevant to this speech because both emphasize the importance of early education regarding human rights in the maintenance and promotion of world peace. Humphrey wrote:

You teachers […] know that it is important to get your message to students when they are still young and before they have absorbed the prejudices that otherwise they may keep for the rest of their lives.

These sentiments appear in the proceedings from the 1978 Vienna Congress where the authors state, “attitude formation in regard to human rights begins in infancy and early childhood.”[4]

The parallels in language demonstrate a profound belief that the provision of human rights education early in life would be beneficial to society by instilling in youth the alleged values needed to maintain and foster peace. For Humphrey, these values were articulated in Article 13 of the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Humphrey understood the purpose of these values to be enabling the full participation in democratic society of all people by promoting “understanding, tolerance, and friendship” between all peoples through education. Humphrey believed that in order for this to be successful, human rights had to be taught in the primary grades. Teaching those same concepts after societal attitudes and prejudices have been internalized would have been significantly more difficult in Humphrey’s opinion.

The comparison between Humphrey’s speech and the 1978 Congress shows the interplay between the individual and a broader audience by embedding the words of a single person within the scope of a global arena. This is a strategy that figures prominently throughout Humphrey’s speech. He uses a form of rhetoric that creates a degree of rapport between himself and his audience based on a common identity. Humphrey uses his shared identity with the attendees to draw a link highlighting his understanding of the bidirectional interdependence between the individual, society, and the world. Another example of Humphrey’s use of the impact a single person on a larger scale was Sandra Lovelace’s appeal to the Human Rights Committee. Humphrey argues that she was successful in amending the Indian Act because the Canadian Government was scared of the negative public opinion surrounding their handling of her case. This is an important point for Humphrey, because he was convinced that public opinion was fundamental to ensuring the respect of human rights within the international context of the nuclear age. Humphrey himself questioned the very future of world peace in an era of nuclear weaponry if there was not widespread education to perpetuate the importance of lasting peace through the study of human rights.

Educating youth fosters the development of a learned society predicated on respecting human rights to hold governments accountable for their actions. In Humphrey’s mind, an educated public opinion about human rights was to be the ultimate authority required for persevering world peace. The place to start developing an educated public opinion was through teaching children because as Humphrey wrote,  “we tell our students that the future belongs to them.” Without children there would be no future, and without an educated public opinion there would surely be another catastrophe.


[1] Nazzari, Vincenza, Paul McAdams, and Daniel Roy. 2005. “Using Transformative Learning as a Model for Human Rights Education: A Case Study of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation’s International Human Rights Training Program.” Intercultural Education 16(2): 172.

[2] Equitas- International Centre for Human Rights Education. 2016. “About Us: Our History.” Equitas. Accessed February 24, 2016, https://equitas.org/en/about-us/our-history/.

[3] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 1978. “International Congress on the Teaching of Human Rights.” Final Document. Vienna. United Nations Education, Cultural, and Scientific Organization. Accessed February 24, 2016, http://undesdoc.unesco.org/images/0003/000326/032644eb.pdf.

[4] Idem.



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