By Sue Ann Rybak
Before teachers can teach about human rights, they must first examine their own prejudices, a UN official told students, teachers and other professionals at the 7th Annual United Nations Teachers’ Conference on Human Rights on March 29 at Chestnut Hill College.
Ramu Damodaran, deputy director for partnerships and public engagement in the United Nations Department of Public Information’ s Outreach Division, said teachers must be able to “accept our own bigotry” and “challenge the assumptions that are so greatly engraved on us.”
He called teachers communicators who teach the importance of human rights because what they are teaching “is right, it’s truth and it is something we need, which can be contested, but cannot be denied.”
“Human rights are not the ideal – they are not what we should aspire to,” Damodaran said. “They must be the base upon which all else is built – that which is innate.”
Damodaran, who is also chief of the United Nations Academic Impact, said there were “attributes in us that only education and communication can help us to unlearn.”
“To my mind, that is your most critical mission – to challenge your audience and those you communicate with to be skeptical, not to accept any dogma as the given truth, even if, it happens to be the only dogma relevant at that time,” he added.
He stressed that human rights cannot be given to one group and not another.
“[If] in determining the teaching of human rights in a classroom, if you begin with certain human rights principles and then get them [students] to admit exceptions to those principals,” he continued, “then you weaken the very fabric and patch of human rights itself, which in my mind is the greatest danger.”
Citing gays and women as examples, he asked how society could give human rights to one group but not the other?
“The moment you begin to accept multiculturalism, and there is no point in denying it,” he continued, “you have to come to terms with it in all its forms: the good, the beautiful, the mundane, the weak and the shabby. You have to come to terms with communicating to your students that they cannot be prepared to accept imperfect or half-way house solutions to multiculturalism.”
He noted a recent discussion at the United Nations about female genital mutilation (FGM), calling it a “violation of human rights of girls and women.”
According to the World Health Organization, FGM includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. About 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
“It was thought that if you summoned international action and outrage against the practice of female genital mutilation that you would be seen as hostile to the doc- trine of the faith of Islam,” Damodaran said. “The two are not synonymous. They are not even compatible. There are societies which are proudly and vigorously Islamic which have outlawed and shunned the practice. It is a practice that is not simply unIslamic – it is inhuman.”
Damodaran added that multiculturalism not only requires society to respect differences in all cultures, but to be a witness to challenge those practices that threaten the rights of the minority in that society. Too often in society, he said, these practices or traditions are defended by the majority.
“Prevention, community, faith, belief, national identity – none of these are an excuse to retreat from any one of those basic standards [inalienable rights],” he said.
In a question-and-answer session after Damodaran’s talk, Jacqueline Reich, assistant professor of political science at Chestnut Hill, said the idea of human rights as being inalienable was “a relatively new one.”
“It’s a discourse that’s trying to take on very entrenched ways of thinking about ourselves,” Reich said.
She asked Damodaran if he could cite one or two examples “that are being successful in taking on this conversation.”
Damodaran replied that in East Africa, women are able to use cell phones to make simple business transactions.
“The sheer willingness to learn and adapt and to seize technology is working for us,” he said.
He pointed out that countries like Cambodia, India and Africa are changing their focus from using literacy as a basis for education to a very precise function, such as healthcare.
He said that by “using literacy as a way mothers can take better care of their newborn children,” it puts the emphasis less on education and more on skills they need as mothers and wives to care for their family.
Another participant, Denis Okema, from Uganda, asked how long it would take for “this aggressive intellectual discourse” to change cultural mores.
“We are known for things con- considered here to be a higher degree of intolerance,” Okema said. “For example, we are known for trying to legalize or put in place capital punishment for gay people, and we are also known for the longest surviving conflict in Africa.”
In his response, Damodaran pointed out that “a tremendous amount of patience” is needed in the way that societies evolve. He said education skills are “empower- ing women to become self-sufficient.” Currently, he noted, the United Nations is focusing on helping people to be self-sufficient within their communities versus the “larger attributes of an education, which is more global and community-minded.”
Damodaran said he believed that [self-sufficiency] will come “once you are able to assure that economic undertaking,” noting, sadly, that it would “take time to evolve.”
He added that members of the Human Rights Council must be elected, and that nongovernmental agencies and the media can and do challenge the credentials of a country to sit on the council.
“You have had instances of countries with fairly questionable human rights records not getting elected to that council, and that – in my mind – is a very important beginning,” Damodaran said.
He added that unfortunately such incidents are not isolated to just one country.
Damodaran replied “the only way we can create a tactic head-on is by taking the basic standards of the right of a decent livelihood and occupation to be the premise for the much greater intellectual and social vigor.”
Ayuen Ajok, of South Sudan, raised the issue of women’s rights.
“There was a slogan when I was in a refugee camp that said ‘human rights is women rights,’” Ajok said. “Under what conditions are the United Nations willing to bridge the gap of the percentage of women in the global south to reach a standard? Most of the countries are members of the UN? What is the UN’s agenda for women’s issues?”
Damodaran said each one of the UN’s goals refers to domestic actions within countries and in its societies.
“It’s how a country treats its poor,” he said, “how a country treats its hungry, how it treats those who are denied education, sanitation or denied public health.”
Damodaran said that in the past countries have said, “this is something that is within our domestic problems – it’s not United Nations’ business.”
“But because of the point we made about governments becoming increasingly afraid of their people,” he added, “they realized they could no longer go to the UN and say ‘this is our domestic problem – it’s not your business’ because the government that did that was in danger of being elected out of office the next time around.”
Damodaran said the last major United Nations meeting on women’s issues was at the Geneva Conference in 1995.
“It was again, at a time when countries were still struggling to accept the fact that what were national problems were now becoming a matter of global accountability and responsibility,” he said.
Damodaran said the United Nations recently announced that a Second Global Conference of Women would be held in 2015. He said he believed that the conference would result in “defining and binding goals … which no government in the world will be able to hide from or shy away.”