By 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” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahE0tJbvl78) 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?