Human Rights as a Way of Life

In 2008, alongside the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the human rights group known as the Elders, founded and led by Nelson Mandela, sent out a clarion call proclaiming that "every human has rights." This statement recalls Voltaire, who when asked, "what should we do about human rights?" answered "Let the people know them". Having facilitated for the last 25 years the learning and integration of human rights as a way of life in more than 60 countries, I sent the Elders a note saying "But do the 'humans' know them? Most do not!" It is therefore, imperative to add to the Elders' call, loud and clear, that every human must learn, know them and own them as a way of life. It is not enough to have human rights, it is essential that everyone owns them and are guided in their daily lives by the holistic human rights framework, enabling women and men to participate as equals in the decision making process towards meaningful, sustainable economic and social transformation. There is no other option.

Having met face to face with people in hundreds of communities around the world, facilitating dialogue about human rights as a way of life, I choose not to engage in the discourse about diversity and/or intercultural dialogue, or even peace. I believe that such discussions distract us from holding the essential conversations that can lead to the planning of meaningful ways and means to facilitate the learning of human rights as a way of life throughout the world. Such efforts, when implemented, will evoke a sense of ownership of human rights and put in the hands of the learner a powerful tool for positive action, thereby enriching people's ability to live within diverse cultures in trust and respect of the humanity of the other. This is not mere Utopia. As people pursue equal participation in the political decision making process, women and men alike, they join in weaving a new foundation of equality for all and the elimination of all forms of discrimination, which is basically what human rights are all about.

The awareness that all human rights concerns and the effective move towards the realization of human rights—be it political, civil, economic, social or cultural—are indivisible, interconnected and interrelated, with a gender perspective, endows communities with a holistic insight of how we are all different from one another yet yearn to belong in community in dignity with others. We all have different and diverse cultural affiliations and several personal identities, yet we all belong to the same humanity bound by the vision and mission of human rights as a way of life. We may all have a different interpretation of belonging and how we relate to subjective historic memories that frame our pride and uniqueness within our families, villages, towns and cities, not to mention religious and national identities, yet, we must all be bound and guided by the fully comprehensive human rights framework. We can all overcome these diversities and break through the vicious cycle of humiliation by learning to recognize the humanity of the other and stop exchanging our equality for survival.

To move from theory to practice, schoolchildren in Thies, Senegal, who had learned that education is a human right, discovered that some of their friends who were not registered at birth had been unable to get an education. They teamed up spontaneously, in a community of 250,000 inhabitants, and in three years registered 4,312 children so that they could attend school and simultaneously lobbied with the authorities to expand the capacity of their schools. Similarly, in the village of Malikunda, Senegal, as a result of ongoing conversations about the meaning of human rights, men and women declared an end to female genital cutting, naming the first girl who was not cut Sensen, meaning human rights. Learning about human rights as relevant to one's life creates a powerful tool to overcome oppression of all kinds. Whatever their genetic makeup, the children and villagers in Thies and Malikunda overcame what some may call "inevitability of nature" and started creating a new future for their community knowing that there is no other option but human rights as a way of life.

In 1991, in Nairobi, Kenya, an important event gave a more succinct direction to our work. A policeman was sent to observe a learning session of 25 diverse development organizations that were being introduced to Economic Social and Cultural Human Rights related to their issues and concerns. As discussions and interrogation were going on, the policeman called out emphatically at the bewildered participants: "Stop it! Stop it! If this is human rights, come and teach it in my village." We at People's Movement for Human Rights Learning (PDHRE), have been answering this policeman's request in many villages around the world. We continue to facilitate learning with local community leaders to have them become mentors of human rights. We carry with us the vision of Eleanor Roosevelt who said: "Where do, after all, universal human rights begin? In small places...."

In the introduction of the learning process, I recently launched a discussion about human rights as a "home". When you are a child, home is where you feel safe out of the rain, protected from the burning sun and often loved. As you grow older, home can be the memory of a lullaby, the stories you were told or overheard, the clothes you wear, the earth you toil, a book you read, the yearning for dignity, and the good or painful memories that instruct our daily lives; in short, the world we live in and wish to be able to claim as our own. In learning about equal choices of decency and acceptance, which is provided in the human rights framework, we learn how to walk towards a new horizon, to restore or build a new home as we internalize the human rights language as a path of freedom. The word "home" holds a whole universe of meanings. Basically it is a space where people can be free from fear and want, and often a refuge from persecution. It is a place, a mindset, an insight to wisdom, paving the road for walking securely with the human rights language for our hopes to become a reality, sometimes even a transcendence. Some of us hold on to painful memories of being evicted and violated and/or evicting our enemies from their homes to secure our path to a false sense of freedom. Human rights are a home where the dignity of all people is being celebrated, the ultimate habitat of and for humanity.

This may be seen as utopic in a world—a home—that in 60 years (from 1950 to 2010), grew from two to seven billion people, where 50 per cent of the population is under 25, and all need a home of their own. In addition, this is a world where social networking undermines value systems, spreads contradictory definition and leads many people aimlessly in many directions.

These often conflicting observations leave me embracing a truth for which we have no other—all people must learn, know and own human rights as a way of life and join in building a political movement that will carve a new future for humanity. In a Dalit village, after sharing with women that food, education, health, housing and work at livable wages are inalienable human rights, they clapped their hands, danced and repeated these five human rights imperatives as a mantra.

Many speak of a human rights culture. I choose to quote Nelson Mandela who spoke of "developing a political culture based on human rights!"—which encompasses it all. Such a political culture is an ever evolving phenomenon of being in community with others, of belonging, of defining the other as being fully human; of choosing or being born into a specific culture and/or religion; and most important of creating human rights political movements. It is worth noting that a human rights political culture views the patriarchal system as a system that must be done away with to be able to fulfil the holistic mission of human rights. Women, as well as men, must fully recognize that patriarchy is a system where injustice is considered justice and where women exchange their equality for survival, a system that allows female genital cutting, imposed marriage and trafficking.

Is it overreaching or too ambitious to call on every civil society organization, local authorities and the private sector to integrate an ongoing, never-ending process of learning about human rights as a way of life, to have women, men, youth and children empower themselves, to move from slavery to freedom, from self-righteousness to justice, and from charity to dignity?

Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms. Democracy became a structure rather than a living organism that allows the participation of all, in equality and without discrimination. As a result of touching the lives of so many people, and with all humility, I came to see the simple truth: a real democracy is a comprehensive delivery system of human rights that can be realized through a never-ending, ongoing process of learning and integration, at all levels of society, of human rights as a way of life.

Human rights learning should not be understood as human rights education. These are two very different categories and approaches. Even though I was the person who almost single-handedly created the United Nations Decade of Human Rights Education, PDHRE moved forcefully to bring human rights learning to grassroots communities. Human rights education is time bound, mostly in academic institutions and schools and does not reach 95 per cent of the world community. In 5 to 10 years we hope to evolve into a movement that will have all people in the world learn, know and own human rights as relevant to their daily lives. They will be able to use human rights as a powerful tool for change, as a strategy to economic, societal and human development.

Our mantra describes human rights as the banks of the river where life flows freely. And when the floods arrive, people who know and own human rights strengthen the bank to revert the floods and maintain freedom. Knowledge is power, and learning about human rights as a way of life moves power to human rights.

For more information visit www.pdhre.org or write to pdhre@igc.org