HUMAN RIGHTS EDUCATION - OBSTACLES TO BE CHALLENGED

Toivo Kitvel, Tallinn Pedagogical University, Estonia

 


The fact that this congress is held here in Norway has a symbolic meaning for us Estonians. More than eight hundred years ago two men were sent by Pope Alexander III to convert Estonians to Christianity, or should I say it in modern terms - to proclaim the 12th century European viewpoint on divine and human rights. The nationality of the first man - bishop Fulco - is a little bit unclear, but the second man, monk Nicolaus - came from Stavanger, Norway. Most probably he had been brought to Norway as a slave, but on the basis of the law in Norway he had the right to become free. This man, freed from slavery, was an Estonian. :

Only five years ago Estonia got its independence reestablished and one more time the Nordic nations were the first ones to follow their ancient traditions acknowledging the rights of Estonians and other Baltic nations to be free. Now it is again possible for us to share with the other European countries common standards for differentiating right from wrong.

A ghost is marching over Europe, the ghost of communism. It was Marx who said so, more than an hundred years ago. This ghost seems to be even more frightening now than it was then, although the states, preaching the marxist ideas, have opened the doors for democracy and some of them have even been disintegrated or ceased to exist as such. Unexpectedly for many of us, not security, but war, state supported terrorism and rising rate of criminality are among the most visible results of this change.

In the turmoil of rapid transformations, a common man from a former Socialist state has been caught unaware and he is more than often afraid of his future and he has more than often lost his sense of personal security. And at the same time a common western European is also feeling less secure now - if he is not afraid of eastern European mafiosos then he should be afraid of thousands of East Europeans invading his country in the summer holidays with their cheap cars with no modern filters to clean their exhaust gases. I actually heard a warning like this after a news report.

It would be preposterous to assume that there is an easy way to solve even a small portion of the problems or recommend an ideal recipe suitable for all, but we must try to understand why sometimes even the minimum standards of humane behaviour might not be so easily introduced in this or that country. After a long time the eastern Europeans now have access to democracy and elect their own leaders. Now they are realizing their dream - a government of the people, by the people, for the people. These famous words of Abraham Lincoln may look like a sufficient condition to implement human rights as well. History has however shown that this presumption is true only when a government of the people and by the people serves what's best not only for their own citizens, but also for their neighbours and mankind as a whole.

It seems to me that there are some prejudices in the post-socialist countries, or at least in Estonia, which should be taken into account, when we are planning to do something in the field of human rights. The first prejudice which we have to overcome is the sceptical attitude that human rights as just abstract phrases used by clever politicians to cover their not too righteous deeds. Speaking about human rights, we should not forget that this topic was used in the context of cold war and that our understanding of the problems connected with this issue may still be influenced from the news and views we were fed by the press ten, twent,v, thirty years ago. The Soviets used it to enhance the struggle against western imperialists, who allegedly denied human rights for non-whites, females,
leftists, peace movement activists, guest workers etc. At the same time western politicians tried to show that the Soviet authorities violated the human rights of their dissidents, members of various religious communities, national minorities etc.

As a result of this ideological struggle we have - at least in some post-socialist eastern countries - quite lukewarm, if not overtly indifferent attitudes towards certain aspects of human rights, especially towards those, which previously were proclaimed to be guaranteed by law, but which were advertised only for propaganda reasons. For some ordinary citizens such nice words like democracy, freedom and justice lost their real meaning because they were used merely as slogans.

A man who has seen all sorts of rights pronounced, but never been implemented, has often become quite sceptical to these things. What he has got is the feeling that it's not the human rights principles which should be taken into account, but the most simple laws about the survival of the fittest. "It's so easy for you to speak about the human rights", such sceptics may say, "but look what your own government is doing - supporting corrupt and undemocratic rulers abroad and confining aborigenes into
reserves at home."

One of the conclusions which could be drawn from such experiences as described above seems to be: instead of trying to introduce human rights in the post-socialist countries exclusively as a product of the free and democratic West, maybe it would be more reasonable to promote them referring to arguments taken from the history, customs and traditions of the countries one is trying to enlighten. Such textbooks, lectures and proceedings are what we might need and what should be compiled and introduced in the curriculum - from the kindergarden up to the university level.

There is one more reason why human rights should be proclaimed mainly by the local people. Foreign specialists - instructors and consultants, lecturers and advisers are quite often perceived as not being responsible for the results of their recommendations and as being capable of fleeing at once, when something goes wrong.

The second prejudice, we have to overcome, pertains to the money needed for introducing the principles of human rights and democracy - at least when we are talking about the situation in our primary and secondary schools. In the past two-three years I have seen a lot of courses held by foreign instructors trying to enlighten us on how to make the school a place where one can learn to honour each other's rights. They showed us how to organize meetings, how to make better contacts with parents and students, how to make the school a place where one has nothing to fear. None of the proposed things had anything to do with money.

At the end of such courses every participant was asked to name the main obstacles hindering them in executing the ideas and procedures they had just learned. Almost every teacher and headmaster present was sure that one could do nothing when one had no money. Still, I am sure that none of them really thought that only a rich man is capable of respecting the rights of another human being. The prejudice that one needs money to implement democratic relations at school and for learning how to honour each other's rights has deep roots in our recent past when most of us were less equal than others.

It is not so much democratic principles put into practice in western institutions which leave the deepest impressions on some post-socialist visitors, but computers and cars, food and drinks, clean and neat rooms, that is things and not ideas are the features which tend to grab the attention of visitors. Morality and ideas, principles of democracy and human rights - they all remain hidden behind the glamorous package.

If we really want to turn from vision to reality we should also take into account that sometimes the majority of people may have deep, sometimes unconconscious, but quite manifest autocratic beliefs and attitudes. This is the situation revealed by the surveys done in Estonia. In the middle of the 1 980's approximately 70 % of parents - mothers as well as fathers - were certain that one couldn't educate children without using corporal punishment. In the years after WW2 we had the percentage as low as 45%. Listing their educational aims parents having children of preschool age put obedience among the first and most important child rearing values. Up to 1991 official programs for our kindergardens and rules of behaviour at school stressed obedience as the most important guide-line to follow.

So it seems to be obvious that one can't expect too much from the parents and teachers in the field of training their children to behave according to the principles of human rights. Research done among our teachers revealed that ten years ago there were twice as many autocratically minded persons among them, than followers of a democratic leadership style.

Of course, some rotation has taken place among our teachers since 1991, but it would be premature to think that the situation has been completely changed. The steps our govemment has taken encouraging retired teachers to retum to school - show that in the near future the autocratic dispositions at school are not going to be summounted very easily. So one of the key questions at least for my country (but most probably for any post-socialist country) seems to be - who is going to put the ideas of democracy and human rights into practice when a lot of parents and teachers are either autocratically minded or just indifferent in their views?

The second question is - which skills do such people need? It seems that the following answers should be considered.

My answer to the first question is that in educating for human rights we must concentrate our resources in training the new generation of teachers. And the answer to the second question is that the teachers should be trained not only, or not so much as, the conductors of knowledge and skills, but as the conductors of moral values. Only when education for human rights is mainly done by ourselves can we hope at least for some results in this field. It doesn't mean that we don't need to see how things are done abroad, it doesn't mean that we have nothing to leam from our near and distant neighbours, it means just what I said - the main effort should be done by ourselves.

It should be taken into account that having fake trade unions and one ruling party for fifty years we have lost the will and skills needed for the organized defence of our own rights. That's why we need to be instructed how to organize ourselves and that's why we need the new generation of teachers who are trained in such skills and who can instruct the others also.

One may ask - what's wrong with the teachers who have done such work before - in the 1960's, 1970's or 1 980's and who have shown themselves capable of organizing other people?

The answer is - the youth organizations of yesterday which we had in our East or Central European countries were based on autocratic, not democratic principles. And as I just mentioned the tendency of using an autocratic leadership style was also quite widespread among parents and teachers just a decade ago. It would be naive to believe that it had left us without leaving any traces at all. Before we can act together, we must be together and discuss together. I think that its the feeling of togetherness which we must achieve and which can serve as the foundation in our efforts to do at least something tangible for enhancing human rights. We live in the age where togethemess can also be achieved and strengthened by modern telecommunications channels. We shouldn't forget that the easiest way to fight against democracy and make conditions ripe for the human rights violations is to shut these channels. Jamming foreign radio broadcasts, confiscation of mail, censuring books, plays, news - all these things were meant to defy human rights. Such things belong to the past, but there are some dangers when we take into account that in the process of privatization of the press, radio, and TV, the chances to forward information and receive it are not always bettered. In the age of such powerful products of information technology as internet we should make full use of it to prevent such things happening again. And it seems that this is one of the most important areas where some monetary support from the West might really be needed.

There is one more field toward which I would like to draw your attention. The spirit reigning in the army barracks reflects the mentality governing in a given society. Education for human rights should not forget this, especially now when we have a lot of military conflicts in Europe and in other continents. Such conflicts are possible not only because there are frictions between the states, ethnic or religious groups, but also because armed forces participating in these conflicts are undemocratic themselves in the principles of discipline and military code they obey.

It would be fatal for the newborn and reborn democracies as well as to the security of their Western neighbours, to deal with human rights in the civilian spheres only and pay no attention to the moral of armed forces. There is nothing which implicitly would hinder armed forces and military schools to be as good places for human rights education as kindergardens and elementary schools.

 

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