Over the past few weeks human rights activists have not only demonstrated unity but also the required courage to hold countrywide protests against sexual assault and the abuse of basic rights of individuals which are legally based on equality and non-discrimination of gender. Extra-judicial killing or death while in custody of law enforcement personnel has also correctly come under scrutiny and criticism.
These protest gatherings have included women, students, public representatives, teachers and people from all walks of life. They have fittingly upheld the need to have accountability and also transparency in decision making, particularly in matters related to maintaining law and order. They have also drawn attention to the need to avoid politicizing in the tackling of any such emerging scenario.
The sustained remonstrations have eventually led to the Cabinet incorporating the provision of capital punishment for those guilty of rape. Subsequently, in the absence of the Jatiya Sangsad being in session, an Ordinance has also been issued in this regard with the approval of the President.
Some lawyers and women’s rights activists have however observed that the provision of death penalty will not resolve the rape issue. They have pointed out that the authorities need to define rape with greater clarity, and allow judges to hand out punishments proportionately and as per their discretion, ensuring that courts and systems are inclusive for survivors with disabilities and consistent with the witness protection law. It needs to be underlined here that Section 155 (4) of the Evidence Act, 1872 allows questioning of the character of rape victims to impeach credibility. However this process should not be misused.
It has also been stressed that any judicial probe, investigation, inquiry or the process in the Court should be done and completed through Special Speedy Tribunals within one month. Unnecessary delay thwarts the process of justice and brings other factors into play.
Some other NGOs associated with the functioning of the judicial process have also suggested that there should be a coordinated effort by the relevant authorities to include within the educational system from the secondary level at least two chapters on the importance of human rights, equality irrespective of gender and the importance of empowerment of the girl-child and women.
Some among them have also pointed out that such a step had already been taken by the government with regard to imparting the importance of establishing the citizen’s right to information.
One needs to agree with the suggestion about taking observance of human rights forward through education. Many countries in Europe have been following this principle for many decades.
We need to remember that education related to human rights is a learning process that assists in building up the required knowledge, values, and proficiency pertaining to human rights. This assists in the development of an acceptable human rights culture that will benefit everyone, irrespective of color, gender, caste or creed. It is believed that this assists learners to eventually integrate human rights concepts into their values and decision-making process.
Human Rights Education is also being taught in different educational institutions in various parts of the world by including this aspect in the syllabus of Social Science meant to be taught at the Secondary and Higher secondary levels. In Europe several schools offer human rights education as part of their curriculum, linked to subjects like History, Politics and Citizenship. In this regard, emphasis is given on; (a) theory of human rights, (b) practice of human rights and (c) contemporary human rights issues. In Scandinavian countries it is believed that that this also empowers people to promote dignity and equality within the community and society.
This view is also reflected in Article 9(b) of “The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam”. It is stated there that- “Every human being has the right to receive both religious and worldly education from the various institutions of, education and guidance, including the family, the school, the university, the media, etc. in an integrated and balanced manner so that it helps to develop his personality, strengthen his faith in God and promote his respect for and defense of both rights and obligations”.
It may be recalled that history was made in Paris, France on 10 December 1948, when the newly created United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. Forty-six years later, the General Assembly, in its Resolution 49/184 of 23 December 1994, declared 1995-2004 as the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education. These two declarations not only stressed the need for the protection of basic human rights but also underlined that one of the ways of achieving this was through education.
This emphasis facilitated the gradual global increase for demand for Human Rights Education. The 1994 Declaration also encouraged many Member States of the United Nations to include the issue under discussion in the syllabus of their schools. This positive effort was also supported by civil society and by inter-governmental organizations through a process of inter-active engagement. This dynamics, initiated in 1994, has since been acclaimed by countries all over the world- specially in Africa and Latin America.
It has also been generally recognized that if implemented properly and with care, then, it could play a role in reducing abuses and violent conflicts and also promote respect for human dignity and equality. It may also be recalled that the United Nations General Assembly, by Resolution 59/113A, made another proclamation on this subject on 10 December 2004, titled “World Programme for Human Rights Education. This programme is seeking to expand the scope of the 1994 Resolution and “promote a common understanding of the basic principles and methodologies of human rights education, to provide a concrete framework for action, and to strengthen partnerships and cooperation from the international level down to the grass roots”.
The United Nations High Commissioner for the Promotion and Protection of all Human Rights functions as coordinator of the UN Education and Public Information Programs in the area of human rights. The United Nations General Assembly has also proclaimed it as central to the achievement of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In addition, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) promotes Human Rights Education by supporting national and local initiatives within the context of its Technical Cooperation
It is pertinent to recognize at this juncture; the constructive role being played by some international institutions with regard to imparting Human Rights Education. They include-
(i) The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which has a direct responsibility to promote Human Rights Education issue through: (a) development of the national and local capacities, via its co-operation in development projects and programmes at national and sub-regional levels, (b) elaboration of learning materials and publications and their translation and adaptation in national and local languages, and (c) advocacy and networking activities.
(ii) The Asia-Pacific Center for Education for International Understanding and the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI). Both institutions, it may be recalled, jointly organized the 2018 United Nations Global Citizenship Education Seminar at the UN Headquarters in New York City. This was useful not only in the formulation of new ideas but also in creating consensus that this process makes governments and political leaders accountable through the promotion of human rights;
(iii) The Arab Institute for Human Rights, an independent Arab non- governmental organization based in Tunisia. This institution has been trying to promote a culture of civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights through the strengthening of the values of democracy and citizenship;
(iv) Amnesty International and Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) are also promoting human rights education with their programmes. This is being done on the understanding “that learning about human rights is the first step toward respecting, promoting and defending those rights”. We have seen their pro-active approach in this regard to some countries in South-east Asia and also with regard to Iran and certain areas in China;
(v) International organizations such as The European Union Ombudsman and The United Nations Human Rights Council also endeavor to live up to expectations by investigating claims of violations of human rights, holding abusers accountable of their actions and drawing the attention of governments to make sure that they are using their powers to end abusive practices efficiently.
It is generally agreed by human rights activists that the benefits of Human Rights Education are as follows:
(i) It is the first step towards respecting, promoting and defending human rights. It also strengthens individual respect for commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms,
(ii) It enables one to be familiar with his/her rights and not only avoid being abused, but also hold the abusers accountable for their actions,
(iii) It promotes respect for human dignity and equality, regardless of race, religion, nationality, ethnicity and language. In addition, it encourages participation in democratic decision making, and
(iv) It combats extremism, terrorism, fundamentalism and violence based on race or religion.
Consequently, the above factors makes me believe that Human Rights Education should be studied by everyone- particularly- law enforcement personnel, lawyers, the armed forces, police and prison officials.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance