Human Rights Education: Teaching Right from Wrong

2015 Cichalewska VictoriaBy Victoria Cichalewska

In my last blog post, I made the observation that one of the reasons Human Rights Education (HRE) is important is because laws are not enough to ensure that rights are protected. Mentalities need to change first before laws can be properly enforced. Another reason why HRE is important was highlighted during the International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) at Equitas. HRE instructs people on what their rights are and thus helps them distinguish right from wrong.

During the IHRTP, participants were asked to watch a documentary entitled “A Path to Dignity: The Power of Human Rights Education” ( which explores the positive outcomes of Human Rights Training in India, Turkey and Australia. In the documentary, Navi Pillay, the previous United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, states that the “full realization of Human Rights requires all human beings of being aware of their and other people’s rights and the means to protect their human rights, which is the task of human rights educators.” For example, in the documentary, one girl from India explained the gender discrimination present in her community and then said that HRE helped her understand that being a girl is not the problem. Rather, her human rights have been denied, and the problem is societal. She realized that the way her family and community was treating her was wrong. Such realizations allow individuals to feel more empowered and inspire them to work towards social change. This is something I heard a lot from participants at the IHRTP. Many have also gone through the same journey that led them to understand that their identity did not justify the abuse they suffered.

But who gets to decide where the problem lies, what is right from wrong and ultimately which rights should be protected? How can we convince people of what behaviour is wrong, and what needs to change? This was a huge topic of discussion at the IHRTP.

In fact, this year was the first one in which the thematic session on LGBTQI rights was mandatory for all participants, contrary to other sessions, like the one on freedom of religion, which was optional. This caused a lot of controversy among the participants. Although many of them, especially the LGBTQI activists, were very happy about the mandatory session, other human rights activists were not. Some did not understand why the LGBTQI session is mandatory. Some claimed that LGBTQI rights are NOT rights, and others compared it to bestiality. I was shocked at how many human rights educators and activists from around the world were against LGBTQI rights and did not believe in defending the rights of this minority group.

This controversy surrounding the mandatory LGBTQI session was amplified during the presentation on “Universality and Cultural Relativism” led by Yousry Moustafa. Many participants expressed their ongoing concern that the idea of Human Rights as universal is just another form of western imperialism. However, Moustafa explained that the rejection of the idea of Human Rights as universal and the promotion of cultural relativism usually comes up in discussions on minority and sexual and reproductive rights, including LGBTQI rights. States will rarely turn to cultural relativism when discussing civil and political rights, for example.

So how can we promote the rights of minority groups that are often controversial for many, and resist cultural relativism, without it being another form of western imperialism? How can we convince people of what is right from wrong? The facilitators of the groups (the people that would lead and facilitate the classroom discussions) would often discuss the strategies they would use when talking about LGBTQI rights. The approach that would most often come up is reminding participants that the LGBTQI community, like all other minorities, are human beings and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. But is that enough?

Human Rights Education in Quebec?

2015 Cichalewska VictoriaBy Victoria Cichalewska

During Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) here in Montreal, I have met multiple fascinating individuals from around the world hoping to develop effective and practical strategies to transform their communities through Human Rights Education (HRE).

Before my internship, I have never seriously thought about the importance of HRE for social change. However, after weeks of work at Equitas, its importance is now clear to me. Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, High Commissioner of Human Rights, also expressed the importance of HRE when he said that the most powerful instrument in the arsenal we have against poverty and conflict is the weapon of massive instruction.” (

After three years at the Faculty of Law, I now understand that laws are not enough to ensure peace and respect. If people do not learn to love and truly respect one another first, even the best anti-discrimination laws will not be enforced. These laws will merely give a misleading appearance of harmony and non-discrimination.

Since HRE is crucial for a healthy society, it should undoubtedly be infused throughout the programs of every school, from the earliest age. I began to wonder whether I have ever been exposed to HRE in my own education in Quebec. I am sure that most participants at the IHRTP come to Montreal assuming that HRE is part and parcel of our education system here in Canada. Yet, I realized that most of my years in school were completely devoid of any aspect of HRE.

During the IHRTP, HRE has been described as the contrary of indoctrination, since it encourages critical thinking and is based on a participatory approach to learning which starts from the experience of each individual. This is contrary to the expert model, in which one individual thought to be an expert lectures an entire group. If HRE is the contrary of indoctrination, it would therefore discourage the propagation of myths or stories that are misleading. Unfortunately, I can think of many such myths that I have been encouraged to accept during my time in school.

Throughout my years in elementary school, high school and Cégep, Canada’s racist and colonial identity has never been revealed to me. I have only heard about Residential Schools coincidentally a few years ago while doing my own research. The first time I was asked to read about Canada’s racist history was in the Critical Race Theory seminar I took last semester when we read Constance Backhouse’s “Colour Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada.” The myth of Canada as a state that has never been racist has been ubiquitous throughout my education before law school.

Moreover, present systematic oppression has also rarely been discussed throughout my education. When oppression is mentioned, it is often situated in the past. For example, consider Montreal Police’s recent commitment to improve the way police interact with First Nations people. These efforts have been described as a way to “try and combat the continuing effects of colonization,” therefore implying that colonialism and oppression is a thing of the past ( However, many, such as Professor Glen Sean Coulthard, would say that the continuing dispossession of Indigenous land and the present pain endured by Indigenous people are not just “effects” of colonialism, but are indicative of the continuing colonial relationship between the state and Indigenous people in Canada (Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) at 106). These are only some examples of myths that pervade our society, including our education system.

For all these reasons, I have come to the conclusion that, from my own experience, HRE seems to be quite absent in Quebec, especially in elementary and high school. Classes that resemble HRE only seem to be available in university and are not mandatory. However, as Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated,  this model of education is important in the long-term project of rewiring how many people think. My time with Equitas has showed me that only such a project can lead to durable social change and a more peaceful world.


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