chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
December 04, 2014

ABA ROLI Director Elizabeth Andersen on Human Rights Education and the Rule of Law

Opening Lecture, Fifth Annual International Human Rights Education Conference

American University Washington College of Law
December 4, 2014

Thank you, Dean Grossman, for that kind introduction, and to you all for gathering these two days to discuss common challenges and to share new strategies and approaches in your work.  And more importantly, thank you for the important work that you do advancing human rights every day.

I was delighted to learn of this conference and to receive Dean Grossman's invitation, as the work you do is so central to my own, directing the American Bar Association's Rule of Law Initiative.  In anticipation of this gathering, I felt such a sense of solidarity about being a part of this community today, and excitement about what I could learn from all of you.

Let me try to set the stage for that collective learning with a few observations about the work that you do, about human rights education, why it's so critically important in today's world, to broader efforts to advance the rule of law and strengthen governance, and also offer some thoughts about what some of the challenges and opportunities may be that we might collectively address in the next two days and in our work in the weeks and months ahead.

II.  The Importance of Human Rights Education in Promoting the Rule of Law

First, let me underscore the role that I see human rights education playing in developing the broader rule of law.  ABA ROLI is dedicated to promoting rule of law throughout the world.  We work in some 60 countries on a wide variety of topics, ranging from judicial reform to anti-trafficking, internet freedom, and accountability for sexual and gender based violence.  This work takes many forms, including advice on legislative, regulatory, or curricular reform; trainings of all types for every possible justice sector actor imaginable; capacity building and financial support for civil society; and public education and awareness-raising.  The vast majority of what we do could be characterized in one way or another as “human rights education”.  It addresses fundamental issues of international human rights law, or develops capacity of governmental or non-governmental actors to uphold rights.

Why do we focus so much on human rights? Why not tax? Or procurement?  Why do we approach topics that are not even squarely human rights in their orientation, through a rights-based frame?

It’s because we see something fundamentally transformative about human rights education, something that goes beyond the imparting of a body of substantive knowledge to a given trainee, valuable though that is.  Programs that develop capacity around human rights have a broader impact, a ripple effect through society; they help build not just the supply of law—judges and lawyers capable of dispensing justice--but importantly, also a public demand for it that can be transformative.  In short, human rights education fosters a broader culture of lawfulness, a rule of law culture, or what you here this week have captured in your conference theme as a “human rights culture.”

Thus a street law program in Kyrgyzstan, in which law students learn human rights law, and then teach it in the local secular and religious schools, is educating not just those law students, but the broader community—a community which will gradually come to expect that its human rights will be protected, not infringed, by the government.  Or the human rights journals we recently launched at two law schools in Pakistan, or our moot court competitions in Mexico, reach not just the students involved, but resonate also with their teachers, families and friends, because all of us humans are after all interested in, are stakeholders in, human rights.  Human rights clinical legal education programs are particularly effective in fostering a human rights culture, again not just among students, but importantly the clients they represent and communities they serve.  Students and clients alike become empowered by the knowledge of their rights, and they can begin to believe in and take advantage of the potential for protections to be afforded them under the law and by legal institutions.

Another prime example of the broad impact of human rights education work we have done is our collaboration with Director Zhang Wanhong and Wuhan University’s Public Interest and Development Law Institute.  I was delighted to hear that the Institute’s Gao Wei would be here this week to speak about legal education in the area of disability rights.  We are very proud of the multi-faceted ROLI project with the Institute, aimed at promoting disability rights education at universities in China, raising interest in disability rights among law students, and fostering networks among law students, practitioners, and disabled persons organizations. Again, important ripple effects beyond the law school walls.

But as your agenda well reflects, human rights education as we conceive of it is not just the business of law schools.  It also encompasses trainings for lawyers, judges, law enforcement officials, and prosecutors on substantive human rights law, or capacity building on topics such as investigative skills in forensics and more effective trial advocacy, to support accountability for abuses.  Thus, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a good estimate sets the death toll in the almost 20-year conflict at more than six million, and sexual and gender-based violence is rampant, ABA ROLI has been working to advance national atrocity trials and to promote the use of international law within them. As a part of these efforts, we have been providing technical and logistical support to mobile courts to try perpetrators of atrocities.  In addition, ABA ROLI has been providing targeted human rights and forensics trainings to police, prosecutors, and legal professionals to support the investigation and prosecution of atrocities, while at the same time ensuring that defendants are provided with legal counsel and that the trials meet international fair trial standards.

Mobile courts in DRC have proven to be an effective part of an atrocity prevention strategy. At least ten atrocity trials for crimes against humanity and war crimes have been heard before military mobile courts. Accountability for these particular crimes is critically important, certainly for the victims, but also for the human rights education that it constitutes--the demonstration effect that it has in the broader society, raising awareness of sexual and gender-based violence, developing the expertise and capacity of critical justice sector personnel to ensure accountability, and fueling a broader conversation about the need for strengthening the justice system and ending impunity for these horrific crimes.

Capacity building for civil society partners is another important strategy of human rights education and rule of law promotion.  Such efforts include trainings on substantive law, on documentation of rights violations, on shadow reporting, on strategic litigation, lobbying, advocacy, and public education campaigns. 

Working with civil society and other partners, we have seen particularly important impact from capacity building that goes beyond one-off trainings, programs that include support for civil society groups to use the knowledge and skills in concrete follow-on human rights activity, be it documenting and compiling a human rights report or assessment, mounting an advocacy campaign or some other activity. 

Thus, when we recently developed our new Access to Justice Assessment Tool, a methodology for evaluating access to justice in a particular country or location, we didn’t just develop the methodology, run the assessments, and share our findings with local actors; we intentionally developed the methodology as a tool for local actors, available open access on our website, with a manual for rights advocates on how to do their own assessments.  In other cases, we have paired substantive training with support to groups to convene a series of community meetings and workshops on human rights, to develop street theater programs or radio publicity campaigns on rights, to build website with resources on human rights, or to launch new networks of rights lawyers to mentor and support one another.  With each such project, human rights trainees embrace and take ownership of the substantive content in ways that help make it stick.  As Ben Franklin, one of our founding fathers here in the United States and something of an early human rights educator, once said: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”  And of course, involving trainees in such follow-on activities inevitably involves all of those they encounter and interact with, ever more broadening that important ripple effect.

III. Contemporary Challenges, Needs, and Opportunities for Human Rights Education

So human rights education is important for its broader transformative effects.  But it is also, I would submit, particularly important in today’s world.  And this brings me to contemporary challenges, needs and opportunities that I hope this conference will address.

First, are both the challenges and opportunities for human rights education posed by 21st century technology and our inter-connected world.

On the side of challenges, it is increasingly clear that technology that we thought would bring our world together is often   having a paradoxically divisive effect.  I think this is happening for two reasons.  First, contemporary technology is eroding our common frames of reference and narrative about the world; no longer do we all read the same dailies or watch the same newscast; rather we follow our own hand-picked “feeds” and exchange views in echo-chambers of the like-minded; we are increasingly isolated.  Second, and somewhat in tension with this first dimension of our contemporary media experience, the world wide web also can mean we are sometimes confronted with very jarring, even offensive perspectives from other parts of the world, images or ideas that previously were more distant or of which we were simply, blissfully unaware.  Thus, twenty years ago, a Danish cartoonist in Copenhagen might have penned an image offensive in the Muslim world, but there were few Muslims in Denmark, and no-one outside of Denmark would see it; today, such a cartoon reverberates almost instantaneously and spurs violence and tension and recrimination around the world.  Confronting difference in this way, without context or mediation or understanding can be divisive, and reinforce the impulse to turn inward, to the familiar, the like-minded; it can reinforce our ideological and cultural silos.

Against this backdrop, human rights education can be a critical mediator, promising an important common framework, a global discourse that we can use to bridge the divides that technology seems to be exacerbating.  These challenges lend a real urgency to our work that I hope you all feel and that motivates our best thinking at this conference about how we weave a global rights fabric that can mitigate the divisive forces at play in the world.

More positively, of course, technology offers human rights education exciting new tools for reaching, engaging, and interacting with new audiences.  Within ABA ROLI, we are always looking for new ideas and are currently experimenting with online distance learning and text-message early warning systems to avert threatened armed violence and atrocities--to name just two uses of technology in our work to advance rights; I look forward to trolling this conference for other exciting innovations.

The second set of challenges I hope we can share our best thinking on relate to the perennial issue of the relationship between human rights and culture.  With your theme of “Advancing Universal Human Rights Culture,” this conference doesn’t shrink from these matters; indeed, one might suggest you have taken a clear position in the debate.  But what is this “Universal Human Rights Culture,” and how do we develop it through human rights education?  Is it, as critics would suggest, a Western construct, imposed as a neo-colonialist impulse?  How do we respond to that charge?  How do we square the notion of universality with what we as human rights educators know to be very different ways in which rights are understood and realized in different cultural contexts?

I would suggest that the answer may lie in a conception of human rights education as most importantly a perpetual process of fostering a local conversation about improving governance, moving toward ever more effective, fair, just, and accountable governance.  Different countries may find themselves in different places in that process, but every country is in it, and every country benefits from human rights education to continue that evolutionary process.  In this conception, the universal human rights culture is a culture of learning, a culture of progress.  Human rights education is not about imparting any one set of norms from one part of the world to another, but about supporting on-going development and improvement in governance.  And we, as a global movement of human rights educators have much to share and learn from one another, about how best to spur and support these evolutionary processes around the world.

Here in the United States, we have in recent months had a national conversation about a number of human rights issues, including excessive use of force in policing, violence against women, and same-sex marital status.  We would stand to learn from colleagues around the world about your approaches to these issues, and more importantly, to learn from you about effective human rights education strategies for fostering constructive and productive conversations around such issues. 

And we here in the United States have some experience to share with others as well.  But as we do so, we at ABA ROLI have found that it is critically important to understand where the local process of developing governance is and to engage it where it is.  In concrete terms, this means making sure that human rights educational processes are locally owned, that we use local and peer-to-peer trainers whenever possible, that we are careful about our assumptions and language, that we appreciate how information is understood in the local context, and fundamentally, we are playing a supporting role, providing ideas, experience, advice and support to local actors, as they take the lead in building their own culture of learning, culture of progress, culture of human rights.

These are strategies we at ABA ROLI have used to address these challenges.  I hope that they are instructive and resonate with you.

Thank you for inviting me to share these thoughts with you this morning.  And I look forward to learning more from all of you over the course of the next two days.