Human rights literacy: A quest for meaning



Prof Cornelia Roux and Dr Anne Becker / /



Human Rights Education and how it is defined in United Nations declarations as well as its applications thereof should become part of new and rigour discourses on Human Rights Education. The World Programme on Human Rights Education (2005-2009) on the school system changed its focus (2010-2014) to include also higher education institutions (UNESCO, 2012: iii). The second phase of the United Nation Commission on Human Rights on a World Programme for Human Rights Education (2004/71) is another example of the importance and support from UNESCO for international human rights programmes.


The importance of Human Rights Education, as discipline, is not in question. The absence of an intrinsic knowledge construct and lack of rigorous discourses on the philosophical, ontological, and epistemological underpinnings of human rights education in teacher training is a matter of concern. The assessment of skills, knowledge and human rights values (Du Preez, 2008; Roux, 2010; Simmonds, 2014) can only be achieved if human rights literacy(ies) exits, what human rights literacy(ies) is/are and what it entails. Since 2008 the notion on human rights literacy(ies), as a probable prerequisite for teaching human rights education emerged in research in human rights education undertaken in national and international projects (Roux 2010; 2012). Roux explains it as follows:


My reasoning is that the ontology of human rights literacy and developing an understanding of the I and the other merge these two notions as processes in human rights education. There are human rights issues which are universal and can be, as such, morally bound to international declarations and constitutions and applicable to all humans. On the other hand, there are also particularistic understandings to human rights issues and people respond differently in their cultural and/or religious communities and environments to these issues. (Roux 2010:999-1000).


Keet (2012:8) also question how human rights education “…as discourse, embody the complex group of relations “between institutions, economic and social processes, behavioral patterns, systems of norms, techniques, types of classification, [and] modes of characterization” (Foucault, 1972: 45)?. He further states that “O[o]ne may say, with a level of certainty, that these questions are produced within the discursive formation of human rights and HRE.” Roux (2010:100) further argues that knowledge about universal rights and values can be “relative and seems to be particularist” (cf. Du Preez & Roux 2010)



Our discourses on Human Rights Literacy(ies)

A National Research Foundation (NRF) funded project Human Rights Literacy: a quest for meaning (Roux & du Preez 2013) had as purpose ‘to determine the knowledge field of human rights education in teacher education at South African Faculties of Education’ (ibid.). One of the aims of the project was specifically aimed to explore the ontologies and epistemologies of human rights and human rights literacy (ibid.) (2012-2014. In 2015 this project included surveys in 6 countries at the campuses of 8 universities to crystalize the data obtained in the 2013-2014 survey and interviews. A rhizomatic research design based on Grounded Theory research methodology was used (Roux & Du Preez, 2013).


Simmonds (2014) points to the contentious use of the concept ‘literacy’ as either a cognitive skill or a social practice. Literacy as a cognitive skill will include knowledge of human rights documents, the remedies available and the values inherent to human rights. Literacy as a social practice alludes to how humans act, re-act and inter-act on abstract human rights documents within specific socio-cultural contexts (cf. Simmonds, 2014). Human rights literacy is competence that constitutes the understanding of the processes and implications of human rights in social contexts (Roux & Du Preez, 2013) reiterating both cognitive skills and social practices. Human rights literacy therefore includes knowledge of human rights documents, remedies, values and skills as well as the processes and consequences of human rights within diverse contexts (Becker, de Wet & van Vollenhoven, 2015; Roux, 2012). In defining human rights literacy as both cognitive skills (knowledge of human rights document, remedies and values) and social practices (the processes and consequences of human rights) human rights literacy opens spaces in which educators, students and researchers can engage with issues such as poverty, gender, religion and social justice within human rights frameworks (Simmonds, 2014).


Unpacking the ontologies of human rights literacy as both cognitive skills and social practices, require a need to explore the competing ontologies of human rights and their implication for human rights education and human rights in education. The universal and abstract nature of human rights described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is based on the premise that all humans have human rights by virtue of being human and that all humans are equally and unalterably human (Donnelly, 2007:282). This however, only indicates that if human rights exist, or are accepted within certain contexts, that humans equally share human rights (Donnelly, 2007:283). There is a wide range of ontological stances on, and anthropological premise(s) of, human rights (Du Preez & Becker, 2015). Donnelly (2007: 281), in advocating the relative universality of human rights, argues that although universality in terms of the functionality and overlapping legal consensus on human rights can be defended, ontological and anthropological universality remains an empirical, philosophical and political impossibility.


In exploring the question: what are human rights? Dembour, (2010:2) works on the assumption that “different people hold different concepts of human rights”. She groups academic writings on human rights into four schools of thought: the natural school, the deliberative school, the protest school and the discourse school (Dembour, 2010). The four schools should not be regarded as fixed categories but rather as identifications of connections among broad ontological orientations of human rights (Dembour, 2010) The natural and deliberative schools are oriented towards liberal individualism while the protest and the discourse schools focus on collective responses and are orientated towards social justice (Dembour, 2010).



What are human rights and human rights literacy?

Scholars from both the natural and deliberative schools rely on principles of law to define and realize human rights: the natural school looks to positive law and the deliberative school to constitutional law (Dembour, 2010). In discussing ontological questions, scholars of the natural school argue that human rights are ‘obvious’ and exist as law (Donnelly, 2013). Scholars from the deliberative school, on the other hand, argue that human rights are the consensually agreed upon political values and principles expressed in constitutions (Dembour, 2010). The deliberative school like the natural school, grounds human rights in law, but regards human rights as agreed upon, providing a political, global and local ‘code of conduct’ (ibid). The processes by which rights are declared based on natural law (natural school) and on deliberation and consensus (deliberative school) thus differ, but both schools acknowledge the possession paradox and present the law and/or consensus as answer (Donnelly, 2013; Dembour, 2010). The possession paradox of human rights regards the paradoxical nature of statements in abstract human rights documents that, for example, all members of the human race are free and equal (Donnelly, 2013: 9; Dembour, 2010: 7). The paradox is that one can ‘have’; and ‘not have’ (enjoy) a right at the same time (Du Preez & Becker, 2015).


The implications of the ontological stances of both the natural and deliberative schools for human rights literacy in human rights education are in the focus on knowledge, skills and values (agreed upon ‘code of conduct’). Human rights are within these ontological stances expressed as both legal and normative (Simmonds, 2014). The emphasis on the horizontal application of human rights: the legal responsibility of the nation-state in regard to the rights of its citizens, imply political literacy (see Simmonds, 2014; Becker, de Wet &van Vollenhoven, 2015). Political literacy regards that citizens have adequate knowledge of the legal responsibility of the nation-state in realizing rights (Simmonds, 2014). In the aftermath of the Second World War and the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) the UN and member states focused on various methods, of which education was one, to instill the public with an internalized, personal sense of human rights. The language and literacy of human rights were constructed from above, within the horizontal relation between International organizations such as the UN, nation-states and citizens (Azoulay, 2014). The political affirmation of human rights in the UDHR (1948) did not, as was hoped, result in a peaceful post-historic world characterized by global democracy. As Ranciere (2004: 297) argues: “the territory of ‘post-historical’ and peaceful humanity proved to be the territory of new figures of the Inhuman”. Recently, therefore, a different approach to human rights literacy developed. Human rights became an object of discussion among ‘everyone, everywhere.’ (Azoulay, 2014). This approach includes all civil exchanges “intended to formulate, claim, defend, amend, recognise, or reject human rights and the means to amend them”.(Azoulay, 2014: 335).


Those who fall into the protest school view ontological questions from a socio-historic and a struggle perspective and define human rights as the aspirations of the oppressed (Dembour 2010). Heyns (2006) argues that humans continually re-create human rights and that human rights and legitimate resistance such as acting and re-acting in intersecting spaces of (non)existing human rights, can be seen as flipsides of a coin. He refers to this as the ‘struggle approach’ to human rights, captured in the expression human rights/legitimate resistance (ibid). This entails an inquiry into domination, power relations and privilege masked within abstract human rights frameworks. Within this ontological stance, human rights embrace the actions, re-actions and inter-action of ‘everyone, everywhere’ (Azoulay, 2014) to human rights violations.


Ranciere’s (2004) describe this as the process of the verification of written rights and its configuration by means of dissensus. It entails the actions which humans take within the gap between the ideal of written abstract rights and its verification – the gap within the possession paradox of human rights (Du Preez & Becker, 2015). Dissensus opens a dispute of what written rights entail, who the subjects of these rights are and where, when and how it should be verified (ibid.). Dissensus would require knowledge about abstract human rights documents, remedies and values and knowledge about the processes within which marginalizations and othering are masked. We therefore argue that human rights literacy include knowledge of abstract human rights but also rigorously engagement and critique regarding the processes inherent to human rights applications which marginalize and exclude others.


In a re-action to what they perceive as the imperialist and neo-colonial nature of humanitarian rights, scholars in the discourse school argue that human rights do not exist and are only talked about (Dembour, 2010: 11: Neocosmos: 2006: 366). The criticism of the hollowness of abstract written universal rights centers on exclusions, the failure to acknowledge the Other, identity politics, the moral and political core of universal rights and the ideological premise of such rights (Zembylas & Bozalek, 2014; Cistelecan, 2011; Žižek, 2005; Rancière, 2004). Scholars such as Žižek (2005) and Ranciere (2004) contend that the politics of human rights serve imperialist and colonialist economic interests in the guise of tolerance or humanitarian intervention or aid. The ethical illusion which tolerance and capitalist charity and pity afford protects us from social reality and the responsibility to structure dissensus and act on human rights violations. Within neo-liberal and capitalist human rights frameworks the poor, oppressed and marginalized become the subjects of humanitarian aid, interventions and special measures, rather than the subjects of human rights (Becker, forthcoming).



Conclusion: Human rights literacy and human rights education.

According to the UN’s world Programme for Human Rights Education (2010-2014) three dimensions are important: (i) knowledge and skills, (ii) values and attitudes and (iii) action. As already discussed these dimensions span over the ontological stances of the natural school, deliberative school and protest school (Simmonds, 2014). The ontological stance taken by the discourse school opens possibilities for deconstruction and a post-structural approach to human rights, human rights literacy and human rights education (ibid.).


Human rights literacy presents possibilities to bring about transformative change within human rights and human rights education. The possibilities for transformative change do not present itself within the three dimensions or four ontological stances but within the discursive spaces which the intersection(s) of dimensions and stances provide. Within these intersections and discursive spaces the processes by which the other is excluded and/or marginalized within abstract rights frameworks and the social and political consequences of human rights can be continually critiqued. The actions, re-actions and inter-actions within these spaces can re-create human rights and human rights education.



Reference list

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[1] Referencing:

C Roux & A Becker: 2015 Human Rights Literacies: Quest for meaning. The European Wergeland Centre, Publications Editions of the Council of Europe. Norway: Oslo.