Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education (EDC/HRE) – Council of Europe

History sometimes seems dangerously cyclical and as fallible human beings we are likely to repeat old mistakes. Past episodes of civil or political conflict become part of the collective memory of a society, marking the lives of thousands in one way or another and leaving the newer generations to deal with the consequences. However, knowing what happened does not always preclude the possibility of going the wrong path again.

I was born in the last years of the military dictatorship in Chile, and lived the transition to democracy first-hand. I grew up in a society divided by the recent past, where some people would rather avoid talking about what happened and others would speak up to claim for truth and justice after living the horrors of torture and exile, or the disappearances of their loved ones in the hands of the military. I would only hear and learn about the political events from my family, because at school it was not a matter of discussion; even history books would finish their pages right at Allende’s election in 1970, and what happened after was omitted so as to avoid the conversation about the Popular Front government (1970 – 1973) and the subsequent military coup and dictatorship (1973 – 1990).

However, at some point it was time to start talking again, to unearth the painful memories, and to face the traumatic experiences the Chilean society suffered through during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Civil society organisations had done an intensive work to put forward the defence of civil and political rights through several initiatives, and progressively the omission made in history books would give way to the first attempts to “tell the story” of what had happened in the last 30 years in our country. I remember vividly the year in which Pinochet was arrested in London, in 1998: it was a moment of social agitation, of debate, and a bit of a catharsis as well for many. At school, our history teacher would organize debate sessions, the first that I have memory of in an educational context; it was a great experience, but also a revealing moment. I realized how powerful it can be to give others the chance to speak, to express their views, and to try to use education as a tool for generating dialogue and change.

I could tell you many stories in which I had an enlightening experience related to education as a means to generate social change. All of them fall into place when I think of what I am doing today at the Council of Europe, working at the Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education Programme (EDC/HRE). I will tell you why I sought to come to work for this organisation and what has been my experience so far.

Why the Council of Europe?

The Council of Europe (CoE) was founded in 1949, way before the European Union became a reality. The organisation focuses its work on promoting democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Europe, and includes 47 member states (almost twice the membership of the EU). Sometimes there is a little confusion between the CoE and the European Council (an EU body), but if you want to remember it right, just think of 1) the European Court of Human Rights, and 2) the European Convention on Human Rights, an institution and a legal framework that have been put forward by the CoE. The headquarters of the CoE are in Strasbourg, France, and there are also country offices across Europe.

I decided to apply to the CoE because of their longstanding experience in the field of human rights, but in particular because of their programme in citizenship and human rights education (EDC/HRE); to my knowledge it is one of the oldest and most popular programmes out there that directly addresses this theme from a policy and practice approach. As part of the Directorate General of Democracy of the Council of Europe, education policy is an important area of work as a tool for developing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Thus, within the education department there are several programmes and projects that promote an active participation and engagement among youth and children in particular; some of these are the Pestalozzi Programme (training for the professional development of teachers and educators), the Explore and Act for Human Rights project (“intended to enable European secondary school students to become familiar with the key principles of European law relating to human rights and to understand how the European Court of Human Rights and other important CoE monitoring bodies” ), and the Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education Programme (EDC/HRE) – which is where I work.

A second reason why I wanted to work here was because a few years ago I had participated in a training for trainers in EDC/HRE co-sponsored by the CoE, which I absolutely loved because of the approach and methods used during the training activities. On that occasion, I discovered some of the publications produced by the Council related to teaching about human rights, such as Compass (a manual with activities for human rights educators). After that experience, I had the opportunity to apply what I had learned through some of the youth organizations I am involved with, by organising workshops or acting as a trainer. Hence, my desire to fully dedicate myself to work in EDC/HRE became even stronger, which also led me to apply to the Rotary Peace Fellowship as it was a great opportunity to specialise in this field.

Why Human Rights Education?

As I mentioned earlier, I do believe that education is a means for generating social change – or as Nelson Mandela put it so wisely “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

At the time I’m editing this blog post I have learned the awful events that took place in Orlando, where 50 people were killed and another 53 were injured in a heinous crime. In moments like these, I feel not only saddened and angry, but also my conviction grows even bigger with regards to the need of mainstreaming human rights education in formal and non-formal education settings. Only when human rights become part of the fundamentals we learn while growing up, things may start changing towards a more tolerant, peaceful, and diverse society.

Human rights education is closely related to peace education, citizenship education, and intercultural education, as it seeks to promote a universal culture of human rights in which peace, tolerance, respect, and human dignity are seen as fundamental values. It’s a wider notion that is used as a tool to foster the development of a democratic culture by engaged citizens. It’s also the awareness – the consciousness – about our individual and collective rights and responsibilities, and of what that means for our everyday lives. Rather than memorizing the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the practice of HRE seeks to involve learners, engage them in the conversation, and to make them actors and leaders of their own learning process.

Paulo Freire said that conscientization is “the process of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action”. Human rights education is closely linked to this process as it brings to practice this idea through the learning, understanding, and practice of human rights at the most basic level – beginning with ourselves and our immediate environment. Furthermore, HRE demands action as it fosters an active engagement of the learner beyond the learning experience based on a multiplier effect, such as trainings for trainers for youth workers.

Strasbourg, ville Européenne

I must say that before coming to Strasbourg I didn’t really know what to expect. I only knew it was really close to the border with Germany, on the banks of the Rhein, and that it was known for being a very “European” city. I have to admit – the city lives up to its fame: the diversity of people and cultures added to the efforts made by the local authorities to enhance the European vibe, make this city a great place to be if you like interacting with foreigners and learning about other cultures.

Another interesting feature of this city is that at least 90% of its inhabitants use their bikes as a means of transport. Not only are distances relatively short – which makes it easy to get anywhere by bike, but also cycling paths are well-marked and the drivers actually respect them! The good thing is that there are many parks and green areas, making the ride to work a pleasant experience.

In general, I really enjoy living here: there is a mixed heritage from Protestant Germany
and Catholic France, visible on the architecture, the urban planning, the food, etc. Since it is also a student city, there are a lot of cultural activities and things to see and to do, most of them open to everyone or at a very affordable price. The only downside is the weather – sometimes it is quite unpredictable and it may start raining in the middle of the day, and it may continue for several days…

If you have read up to this point, thank you! And if you are interested in knowing more about this topic, I invite you to visit the Resources section of the EDC/HRE programme of the Council of Europe, and the online platform Human Rights Education Network, curated by yours truly with articles, opportunities, and information in general about this field.

[i] www.coe.int

[ii] http://explorehumanrights.coe.int/?lang=en

[iii] http://www.freire.org/component/easytagcloud/118-module/conscientization/

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