The Latitude News Op-Ed column is a space where people from all walks of life can share their opinions on the links and parallels between the U.S. and the rest of the world.
You may not have noticed, but Monday, December 10 was . It’s been 64 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into being — shepherded on the American side by no less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt. But even today the question of what does and doesn’t constitute human rights and their violations remains fuzzy.
Note, for example, this week’s coverage in Latitude News of Russia and the U.S. hurling reciprocal accusations of human rights abuses at each other — using human rights as a political football is easy, or at least easier, it seems, while people remain confused over what constitutes a violation.
In fact, to some extent finger pointing is encouraged by the very agencies that do the most good in protecting human rights, agencies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Moving away from that model toward prevention of abuse requires education and training — something that the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR) deems essential for people everywhere.
Harvard Carr Center Fellow Felisa Tibbitts says one of the reasons it has been difficult to fund education initiatives is this confusion: What exactly are human rights?
“In some cases it is not even called human rights. In Victoria (British Columbia) for example, the police explicitly call it “human rights education and training, but there are semblances of it in other places,” Tibbitts says. “For example, the principle of non-discrimination is a very strong one here in the U.S., and I don’t believe that name is typically linked with human rights standards.”
One American community that took on human rights training early and has seen the success it can bring is Bedford, Massachusetts. Not to be confused with the seaport of New Bedford, the town of Bedford is a historic, suburban and fairly affluent community of 13,000 located just north of Boston, near “America’s technology highway,” Route 128.
Although Bedford never used the term “human rights,” recently retired Superintendent of Schools Dr. Maureen LaCroix says when she began working in Bedford about 15 years ago, she found a community actively seeking ways to ensure that people treat each other with respect. “I don’t think that was always the case,” says LaCroix. “I think in the early 1970’s there was a lot of conflict.”
A traditionally white, homogenous, and blue-collar community, Bedford began to see significant change when Route 128 was built, bringing with it an influx of industry and a new population of white-color workers, a small number of whom were people of color. This led to the formation of several grass roots movements which eventually formed the Human Relations Council of Bedford (HRCB).
“Some of their work early on really tried to propel the schools and the community to address diversity issues,” says Director of Bedford Youth and Family Services Sue Baldauf.
By the time LaCroix was hired, education had begun to make a difference. In fact, she says, part of her attraction to the job was the high degree of civility she saw among people in places like Town Meeting, which is where locals decide how to govern their town. “I noticed a willingness of people in the town to listen to each other,” she says.
The “culture of respect” became apparent in 2004, when a hate group came to Bedford to capitalize on a public dispute over a rainbow flag in the middle school.
Despite strong feelings on both sides of an issue that threatened to divide the town, people came together when they saw the potential of their actions for hate mongering and singling out individuals, who might happen to be gay.
As Felisa Tibbitts puts it, “In the end, it is about democratic participation. This means allowing people to critique governing bodies and to have open discussions about human rights without fear of reprisal.”
Tibbitts’ Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) recently teamed up with the Japanese NGO Soka Gakkai International (SGI), to produce the film “A Path to Dignity: the power of human rights education,” to show this kind of training in action.
The film highlights three very different case studies of how human rights education can make meaningful change happen.
In Australia’s Victoria province, the entire police force — 14,000 employees in total — has been required to have human rights training since 2006. A mostly white body, the force faced complaints of inappropriate searches, homophobia and over-policing of immigrant youth, among other things. Since introducing the training, however, there has been an average 30 percent reduction in complaints. One officer says that now people have a common language to address issues.
The video also showcases how the Indian government has reached out to over 300,000 school children since 1997 to teach them how seemingly abstract rights like “non-discrimination” and “equality” can change their daily lives. Children tell their stories – how they’ve begun to speak out in favor of more education for girls and against forced marriages.
And from Turkey a woman who was domestically abused talks about how she learned to resist social pressure to return to her batterer.
From Bedford to Turkey, the training precipitated the same result: a change in attitudes across the entire community.
“What’s important,” says Tibbitts, “is getting training out there so that people realize the only ones who can ensure protection of human rights are all of us.”
Susan Sirois Ellis has a varied career that has included writing for everything from scripts for multimedia to articles for the local press. Currently she works at the Harvard Kennedy School managing the online presence for their career office. She often Tweets Harvard events and talks at @suellis. She is also a resident of Bedford, MA.