Domenico Ronconi, Head of the "School and Out-of-School Education Section" at the Council of Europe


The first summit of Heads of State or Government of the Council of Europe's member states, which was held in Vienna in October 1993, proposed a new vision for an enlarged Europe. It declared: "The end of the division of Europe offers an historic opportunity to consolidate peace and stability on our continent. All our countries are committed to pluralist and parliamentary democracy, the indivisibility and universality of human rights, the rule of law and a common cultural heritage enriched by its diversity".

The second Summit held on October 10-11, 1997 in Strasbourg, intends to take stock of the four-year-old campaign against the resurgence of racism, xenophobia, intolerance and aggressive nationalism, and to fix the new priorities for the Strasbourg-based pan-European organisation on the eve of the third millenium. No doubt, the defence and spread of Human Rights as means to promote peace and progress in Europe will continue to be a top priority.

The Council of Europe has, since its inception in 1949 and especially as a result of the European Cultural Convention (signed in Paris by 10 states in 1954 and now ratified by 47 states, i.e. practically the whole of Europe), recognised the paramount importance of education in building up a democratic society based on human rights and social cohesion.

Through innumerable meetings with teachers, teachers trainers, experts and NGOs, the Section of which I am in charge has brought about a rich sharing of ideas, experience and innovative action in human rights and peace education. European society is of course, still very imperfect and there is ample room for improvement, but I daresay it would have been much worse off today without the leading role exercised by the Council of Europe in human rights development and education in the past 40 years.

The following are some of the key ideas which have emerged from our work on human rights education. It is argued whether human rights should be taught as a separate subject or permeate the curriculum, or both. We feel that what is really important is that human rights and democracy should, as Maitland Stobart put it, "permeate the whole of school life - the ethos and organisation of the school as well as the content of the formal curriculum".

The concept and implementation mechanism of human rights education vary from country to country and, sometimes even from school to school, but we suggest that a common core should feature the curriculum consisting of;

(a) the main categories of human rights matched by the duties and responsibilities towards other individuals, the civil community and humanity as a whole;

(b) the various forms of injustice, inequality and discrimination, including poverty, racism and human rights, with special reference to minorities;

(c) key historical events in the continuing struggle for human rights, with special reference to minorities;

(d) the main international declarations and conventions on human rights, such as the Universal Declaration of 1948 and the European Convention of 1950, and the historic documents highlighting the progress of human rights in one's own country (a collection of such national texts titled "The emergence of Human Rights" is currently being published by my Section, the draft first volume appeared in May 1997).

One of the Council of Europe experts, Ian Lister of York University, made the telling point that human rights education should not concentrate on violations, brutality and failures, as this can be discouraging for young people. The subject should include some "success stories" as well. Professor Lister warned also against "comfortably locating denials of human rights in other places and other periods". He emphasised the need "to include material about our own country and our own times".

Human rights education should start at an early age and make full use not only of the formal curriculum but also of extra-curricular activities. Approach will differ, of course, according to age, aptitudes and abilities of the school population concerned.

Primary schools can probably best contribute to human rights education by "living human rights", by providing a welcoming, stimulating, attractive and tolerant learning environment. One of the best ways to do this is to accustom pupils to work together, in interchangeable small groups, thus leading them to practice teamwork, mutual understanding, tolerance and solidarity (I have seen this system adopted and extended even to the secondary sector in the SEK schools in Spain, where students live and work together in large spaces which have replaced the traditional classrooms).

Human rights education will gradually become more specific in lower and upper secondary schools, where opportunities to introduce students to more abstract notions of human rights will occur in such subjects as history, civics, social studies, religion, philosophy, languages and literature.

Experiential learning can and should make an additional contibution to human rights education. Young people should be given the chance to gain first-hand experience in problem-solving, decision-making, project planning and management, interacting with peers, teachers and other people. These experiences cannot be provided solely within the classroom or through simulation, and schools should therefore "explode" into a wide range of contacts with families, the local community, social and cultural institutions, the world of work, other schools and other countries.

The most efficient way of imparting lessons in human rights is through the evironment, organiasation, set-up and ethos of the school, which often show up in the relationship which exist between students´ teachers and heads of schools. The ideal school shows respect and consideration for all members of staff, encourages solidarity, accepts difference and promotes dialogue. It also provides young people with opportunities for meaningful participation in the long-term and day-to-day running of the school itself. This has the advantage of involving students in managing their own affairs, increasing their motivation, improving the school´s physical and human environment and inducing students to play the democratic game, thus effectively paving their way for democratic citizenships. The experience of school councils and class councils composed solely by students, as practised in the UK (where 50% of secondary shools and 15% of primary schools have hitherto adopted this system); is very significant and worthy of imitation.

The effectiveness of human rights education clearly depends on the commitment, quality and skills of the individual teacher and head of school. At one of the Council of Europe´s in-service courses for teachers it was argued that "human rights education demands a commitment to a way of being and living". As in any other job, there are good, average and below average teachers and it is not easy to motivate all teachers to become "living examples of human rights in action". But if they are not, their teaching has little value, because students will be tempted to say or think: "How can I believe what you say if what you are is constantly ringing in my ears?"

Hence the absolute need of a widespread and effective provision of in-service education and training for teachers. In fact, every year the Section of which my colleagues and I happen to be responsibile organises several European-wide, week-long, in-service seminars on human rights and citizenship education (as civics is now called). For example, at the Donaueschingen Academy for in-service training set up by the Baden-Wurtenberg authorities, a seminar for 28 teachers focusing on school and class councils in relation to democratic citizenship was held in June 1997.

The need for in-service training courses specifically for heads of schools is now being felt as a matter of urgency. "Directing, and participatory school community have become a complex and demanding task. They require considerable interpersonal, managerial and even entrepreneurial skills for the school's growing contacts. Heads, school leaders and also school administrators will need training and support if they are to discharge their duties successfully" (Maitland Stobart)

One of the most important developments in Europe in the last 50 years has been the emergence of multicultural societies in practically all countries, through increased mobility, migration, immigration and alas, refugees. We are now living in multilingual, multiracial, multireligious, multicultural national communities. The society we live in is quite different from what it was a few decades ago, and this entails the need of a reappraisal of the basic concepts of national and cultural identity, cultural community, human rights, democracy, minority rights (individual and collective), and citizenship rights and duties. What does it really mean to be a citizen of our country and of our continent and of the world, and to be a member of our local and regional community, of our cultural or minority group? What are the components of democracy today?

To answer these questions we have had a project on "Democracy, human rights and minorities: educational and cultural aspects", which gave rise to a number of seminars, workshops, publications and, on 21-23 May 1997, to a final conference attended by some 160 experts and delegates who approved a "final declaration" on interculturalism which is particularly innovative. This four-year-old project is being followed up by an equally important one which is expected to have the backing of the Council of Europe authorities and members and which deals with "Education for Democratic Citizenship".

I wish to quote just a few statements from the "final declaration" mentioned above, which is now an important Council of Europe document:

"Multiculturalism is now a sine qua non at all levels of social, cultural, economic and political life... It requires consideration of, and respect for, cultural diversity as the cornerstone of the principle of equality of all people.

"The only way of accurately formulating cultural issues relating to the situation of minorities is to treat cultural identity as a key element of human dignity for both individual and collective development.

"The notion of cultural identity should be understood as something which is dynamic and evolving. For, if extremely negative consequences are to be avoided, this notion cannot be reduced to a body of unchanging ethnic or cuitural determinants to which individuals and groups are subjected by virtue of their birth or their past.

"The different cultural communities must be recognised not as groups towards whom society, in its manifestations as the dominant cultural identity, adopts an attitude of respectful tolerance or even of benevolent protection, but rather as actors participating in the ongoing reconstruction of the heritage which constitutes the identity shared by the whole territorial community.

"Special emphasis is to be given to...
(a) the duty for all public service media to be distinguishably at the service of the common good by catering for all sectors of society;
(b) the importance of intensively promoting multilingualism which is a cardinal aid to understanding cultural diversity;
(c) the importance of history as an aid to intercultural understanding... and the need to view the teaching of the history of minority communities as a compulsory and integral part of the history of the societies to which they belong;
(d) the need to bear in mind the role of religious attachments as components in the building of the cultural identities and the cultural life of many minority groups, especially those from migrant beackgrounds;
(e) the risk that cultural communities which are not respected and which feel that their future is in jeopardy may withdraw into a purely defensive and conservative attitude, which could lead to violence;
(f) the need to assign education for citizenship its crucial place both at school and out of school throughout people's lives, on the basis of exercise of real responsibilities in group and community life;
(g) the absolute necessity of considering human rights as the foundation of all attitudes, behaviour and measures aimed at meeting the needs of cultural identities and the communities through which they are expressed".

We all know that democracy is the best form of government, the only one which is conducive to peace combined with progress, at least as far as the Western world is concerned ("the worst democracy is by far preferable to the best dictatorship"). But democracy does not fall from heaven, nor can it be left to chance. It is up to us to work for it, practice it, organise it, maintain and develop it in accordance with the changes which take place in the never-ending progress of history. And there is no democracy without the observance and spread of human rights, based on freedom, equality and fraternity (the three terms being interlinked and equally important).

"Pourrons-nous vivre ensemble?" is the title of the 35th book recently published by the eminent French sociologist Alain Touraine. "Shall we manage to live together?".

We must all still learn to live peacefully together and work together for the common good. There is no alternative to this but war at the national or international level, and stress and serious illness at the individual level. And yet it is not easy for human beings to live and work together in peace! The Council of Europe's ethical mission is to continue to preach, teach, spread and implement the basic values of human rights, the rule of law and pluralist democracy to ensure peace.

"The 19th century" - said Fredrico Mayor, director-general of UNESCO, in a public lecture, entitled A Culture of Peace - "eradicted slavery, the 20th century eradicted colonialism, the task of the 21 century is to eradicate war. We must shift from the reason of force to the force of reason".

The Roman dictum "if you want peace, prepare for war" is no longer admissible today. We have a much better motto to guide our thoughts and actions, and it is this: "If you want peace, be an instrument of peace".





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