A human rights instrument: education

  • post Type / Media
  • Date / 9 December 2002

Education: an effective human rights instrument to promote tolerance and prevent discrimination based on religion and belief.

Speech delivered by humanist Dhyan Vermeulen during the ‘Preliminary Program for the Strategy Development’ Seminar, held from 7 to 9 December 2002 in Oslo and organised by the Oslo Coalition Initiative on developing a Global Interdisciplinary Network.

Dhyan Vermeulen is a Humanist Ethical Education Expert in the Netherlands.

In 1998 the Oslo Coalition was formed with 150 Human Rights, Religious Representatives and Human Rights Experts. The Oslo Coalition is an independent body, an NGO and there is a Oslo Decalaration.

In 2001 November the UN Organised a Specal International Consultative Conference in Madrid on ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief, Tolerance and Non-Discrimination in Education’. IHEU was represented at this conference through its excecutive director Babu Gogineni who gave a plenary speech. The seminar in December 2002 in Oslo, is a follow up meeting of this Madrid Consultative Conference.


An effective human rights instrument to promote tolerance and prevent discrimination based on religion and belief.


We discussed the paper: The Oslo Coalition Initiative on developing a Global interdisciplinary Network’ for the following up of The Madrid Consultative Conference on ‘School Education in Relation with freedom and Religion’. Colleagues in education from the Netherlands, the European Humanist Federation and the International Humanist Ethical Union agree that humanists have to participate in the development of this network and follow up conference. Humanism will give worldwide support to the fullest possible development of every human being. Humanism holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships.

Principles of democracy are restricted to the pragmatics of government. Therefore humanists affirm, that every human being has a responsibility to condemn discrimination and intolerance based on religion and belief, and to apply religion or belief in support of human dignity and peace

Becoming a human being means that everyone should have the chance to build up his or her own identity, but what is the crucial question that identity poses in our globalizing world? Can identity still be defined in the singular? How to interpret and to feed the experience that, less than ever before, humans are isolated individuals; and how to overcome the isolation of individuals and stimulate the interconnection of communities?

In our time becoming a self as actor of life takes place in relation to ‘collectivities’ (the familial, local, national, ethnical, religious, global collectivity). Which collectivity must be taken into account and how, when we nourish the idea that in some ways being human is being part of a collectivity?

The development of approaches to education on (freedom of) religion or belief can play a constructive role in the development of strategies on: “How religious intolerance and discrimination can be combated and how freedom of religion or belief can be promoted through education”. In education in Germany, in Belgium and last but not least in the Netherlands, they have a treasure of interesting educational methods and more than 20 year experience; that can be helpful.

I will present you the Dutch case “Humanist Ethical Education (HEE)” and the Dutch case “Social Ethical Education (SEO)” as two of the possibilities. After that, I would like to tell something about other European cases: “Lebenskunde case developed Berlin” and: “Non- confessional Ethics” developed in Belgium”.

One of the main questions is:
“How can schools who deny freedom also be reasonably expected to promote it?”
I can agree with arguments of IHEU about creating a neutral public space for people of all faiths and those with none. Humanists whole-heartedly support freedom of religion for others. As equal partners in society it is also important for them to have freedom of religion or belief in the educational sector as well as elsewhere in public life. Equally importantly, while Humanists extend their fullest support to the freedom of belief, for themselves they also claim freedom from make-believe.

The values embodied in International Law and Human Rights conventions are binding on every state in the contemporary world, and have a compelling moral value that need not derive from anywhere else.
No state or individual can escape this global, even universal, obligation. States have a duty to foster positive values – and these should be the values of the universal Human Rights, not Christian or Hindu, Humanist or Muslim values only, as some have advocated in Madrid 2001.

Education is transmission of civilization and preparation of children for complex responsibilities in a multicultural and pluralist world. A multi- traditional and open approach that can contribute to a culture of tolerance implies that schools evolve non-confessional and impartial educational syllabi, and teach about religion, providing children with objective information and empowering them to make their own choices.

Teaching about religion and religious instruction are not the same. The minimal value systems that all states today are bound by, are those underpinning the International Human Rights regime. Let us teach children these values. Let us also protect religion and state from each other, and ensure the strictest separation of religion and belief, which is the true institutional guarantee for the freedom of conscience for all individuals – believers or non believers – and which will then also protect and ensure that the school becomes the crucible where the positive human rights based attitudes that we so dearly cherish, will be nurtured.

Pedagogical mission of education in the Netherlands

In recent years, interest in the moral task of education has increased. The ‘Platform Pedagogical Mission of Education’, in their final report ‘The school of your life’ pointed out that more attention should be paid to the preparation for democratic citizenship. This conception was shared by the major educational organisations, who urged linking democratic citizenship with norms and values as well as religious/moral backgrounds. Also the Minister of Education, the Parliament and many others, emphasized the necessity to pay more attention in secondary education to citizenship, norms and values in general and religions/moralities in particular. The general premise was accepted that the government in the Netherlands does not practice state pedagogy but does hold the responsibility to create conditions for schools to be able to give form and content to their moral task.

First Case: Humanist Ethical Education and Life View Education

Humanist Ethical Education and Life View Education started over thirty years ago as a subject choice, particularly in public schools, giving parents and their children the opportunity for an ethical education.

Children in the state primary schools in the Netherlands have a statutory right to receive religious education or life view education during school hours. Since 1969 humanists have contributed to this education; a contribution that has been much valued by children, parents and schools alike. HEE teachers are trained and supported by the Dutch Centre for Humanist Ethical Education.

Humanist Ethical Education (HEE) and Life View Education is a qualitative way to deal with life events and life-style decisions. HEE is about the teacher performing an initiatory, stimulatory and supportive role among pupils who educate themselves. And pupils see that their opinions, ideas and contributions matter. HEE is based on a number of fundamental didactic principles:

One important didactic principle is to use pupils’ actual experiences as a basis and so gear lessons to their own environment.
Another principle is to appeal to a combination of senses to bring you as fully as possible in touch with yourself and with the outside world.
A third principle is to learn, through questioning and examining, to develop an open mind towards life issues and finding possible answers.
The emphasis on co-operation and exchange is also a didactic principle in HEE, in which social learning and living are also given their place.

In human ethical education (HEE) in primary and secondary schools in the Netherlands “Art of Living” is a special subject. HEE develops conditions necessary for giving pupils the chance to become people who can deal with questions concerning values in a creative way. This is a group process method. It involves the whole group including the teacher meeting in a circle at least once a week to look at issues relating
to personal, social, moral (meet other values, traditions and religions) and health education.

The pupils are stimulated by assignments to reflect on their actions regarding the given theme, in the context of a situation they have experienced. Cultural, moral and religious aspects of the situation have to be visualized for the group. Visualisation can be realised in role-play, drawing, writing and social play. In discussing these micro-level reflections, the pupils are challenged to take their own point of view, make decisions, reflect on it and defend or revise it.

In secondary education they also have to reflect from a meso (community) and macro (state, European, world) level. The minimal value systems for reflection are the human rights and values underpinning the International Human Rights.

HEE developed lessons on human rights and also a website with a learning environment concerning children’s rights: www.hvo.nl, kids section.

HEE lessons are usually based on a theme. The teacher may choose a theme him- or herself, which he or she believes fits in with the pupils’ environment. More often, however, pupils themselves will bring up an issue during the lesson which the teacher and pupils feel is important to deal with. HEE in practice has given rise to a methodology, which gives HEE teachers a structure, a framework within which to plan their themed lessons. This methodology allows for a variety of working methods.

Second case: Social Ethical Education in The Netherlands

This is a product of inter-religious cooperation.

One of the objectives of Social Ethical Education is to develop a moral orientation in young people, with a view to their participation in a democratic and morally pluralistic society. In this respect it is necessary to pay attention to a relevant understanding of the most important religions/moralities in relation to social issues. This core curriculum, written in cooperation with denominational educational institutions (1997), draws attention to the diversity of value conceptions and principles that we, as society, agree on; principles that should ensure our living together in a humane and democratic way.

Explaining why education is obliged to make young people socially and morally competent and together with teachers developing workable and well-founded model lessons, is part of a development and implementation strategy that was launched in the course of 1997.

From the work of the Platform Pedagogical Mission it appeared that young people have a need to be informed on the current social and religious/moral questions. If education does not pay any attention to these issues, the danger exist that future citizens in an increasingly plural society will be less able to give form to social coherence or to relate to questions of life and death. Multiformity is a good thing in democracy, but does require that future citizens can handle this. If not, society will fall apart. Social Ethical Education in secondary education is developing slowly between 1998 and now 2002

The general objective is:

– Students can participate in moral communication on social issues in democratic and religiously/morally plural society on the basis of knowledge and understanding of:

*generally accepted basic principles and basic laws that underlie the way people live together within the Dutch democratic constitutional state;
*the significance of religions and moralities for moral communication about the structuring of society;

– furthermore students should have the understanding and skills to be able to participate in moral communication.

In a multi-cultural society, solutions for social questions will have to take account of the plural views on the question of what is good and human. This does not go without saying. In a plural society a dialogue between differing cultural traditions is necessary to be able to live together and to determine the structuring of society. The quality of the democratic process is also determined by the extent to which justice is done to plurality with respect to morality and religion. The democratic structuring of society is richer if the dialogue between different religions and moralities is successful.

Educational practise

Moral communication is aimed at big, controversial social issues. For example environmental issues, new technological developments such as genetic engineering, issues concerning life and death such as euthanasia, the North-South issue, and the poverty issue. Students learn to think about the structuring of society by learning to participate in moral communication. This is essential for a democratic society. Various conflicts can occur in this process, because different people have different views on the structuring of society.

In the course of history principles and fundamental laws have been formulated and have generally been accepted. These principles and fundamental laws make it possible for people to live together in a democratic and plural society. They belong to the public morals of this democratic society. In SEO students are introduced to these moral principles and fundamental rights.

Moral and religious traditions play a part in thinking about social issues. They contain views on the way in which living is good and worthy. These views provide a purpose to moral actions. Contrary to the principles and fundamental rights mentioned above, there is no general consensus on these views in our society. We therefore talk about non-public morals, morals which cannot be claimed to be generally accepted. These morals refer to moral communities as cultural bearers of certain opinions about the good life.

The focus of attention in this learning area is on learning to participate in moral communication. This communication takes place where ever people talk about social issues and discuss the question about which actions are good and morally just. This communication can be organised more or less institutionally, for example in ethical committees, in institutions and companies or in a social action group. It may be organised on a large scale, such as debates organised by the government, or on a small scale, such as in a department of a political party or in an action group for a social issue. Students have to participate in this communication supervised by teachers. These organised debates form the strong learning environment which helps students to learn. During participation there will be moments for reflection from a micro, meso (community) and macro (state, Europe, world) level. The minimal value system for reflection are the human rights and values underpinning the international human rights.

The introduction to the key notions of ethics is only given to the extent that it is necessary to be able to participate in moral communication on social issues. A central part of this learning consists of the communicative skills that students need in order to be able to participate in moral communication.

Third case Lebenskunde: Humanist-education in Berlin

Humanist-Education (Lebenskunde) is an outlook on life instruction which can be attended voluntarily at the Berlin schools since 1982 and in which at present approximately 30.000 pupils are participating in the year 2002.

The Humanist-Education orientates itself at:

the human-rights-declaration of the United Nations,
self-determination – within the outline of a responsibility-ethics,
science – but is aware of the limits of our knowledge

Humanist-Education renounces religious or transcendental interpretations of the world. Special features of the Humanist-Education teaching in comparison with other teaching disciplines are:
– the character of an open curriculum,
– starting off from the interests of the pupils.

Ethics and morality were for a long time principally rejected in the history of our German associations. Both were interpreted as expression of authorities to secure their power, as a super-ego-creation in the psychoanalytical sense. It was seen as a mix up with authority rules.


Lebenskunde teachers work with the dialogue principle. And they attach great importance to action-orientated and product-orientated learning, for example: interviews, radio-plays, video-films, slide-series, and wall-newspapers.

This methodical approach results from much disappointing experience in the scholastic conveyance of knowledge. For a long time teachers wrongly believed that information would be sufficient to bring about changes in behaviour. All of you know that it is not possible to prevent skinheads by antifascist information. In particular East-Germany is an example for this: Anti-Fascism was a state and scholastic matter of course, but proved to be ineffective in the introversion of these values. They were not elaborated independently but prescribed authoritatively.

Humanistic Ethics also requires the knowledge of facts – but is it sufficient? What about the influence of psychological dispositions? Emotional experience is consciously included in the Humanist-Education. Lebenskunde teachers speak with the pupils about their fears of what is strange but also their longing for the totally different. This will then, very often, be discussions about experience in the house of the parents, about the daily violence – whether on TV or in the streets and the powerlessness to react to it in the right way. A successful method for this is the role-play in which, for example, anger can be vented, or disappointment is expressed in a protected and controlled play situation.

An example for these ideas would be our teaching target from the Humanist-Curriculum: “Getting to know cultural differences as positive extension of knowledge.”
We are hopeful that such learning will form intellectual and psychological attitudes in the long run, so that the pupils will be able to resist the fascination of reductionist solutions.

Case 4: Non Confessional Ethics in Belgium

Non Confessional (NC) Ethics in Flanders, Belgium will prepare children for complex responsibilities in a multicultural and pluralist world. This Humanist Free Thinkers Education is one possible choice for parents and their children among various choices for religious education in Flanders, Belgium.

NC Ethics Education is an open approach that can contribute to a culture of tolerance. This implies that schools evolve a Non-Confessional and impartial educational syllabus for this ethical education, providing children with objective information and empowering them to build up their own value system and make their own choices. Students have to develop their own point of view on life and they learn to bring in arguments based in scientific knowledge. In NC Ethics pupils have to receive the materials to build their own life stance and become owners of values like equality, justice, responsibility and others.

Promote tolerance and prevent discrimination based on religion or belief

All these mentioned cases are possible methods. The experience of teachers with their pupils and students can help us to realise a dream called: Education as an effective human rights instrument to promote tolerance and prevent discrimination based on religion or belief for all citizens of this world.

Citizen of the world

The classical Roman philosopher Seneca, summarising older Greek Stoic views, shows that each of us is member of at least two communities: one that is truly great and truly common in which we look neither to this corner nor to that, but measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun; the other the one to which we have been assigned by birth.

The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum comments: “The accident of where one is born, is just that: an accident. Any human being might have been born in any nation. Recognising this, we should not allow differences of nationality or class or ethnic membership or even gender to erect barriers between us and our fellow human beings. We should recognise humanity – and its fundamental ingredients, reason and moral capacity – wherever it occurs. To be citizen of the world, one does not, the Stoic stresses, need to give up local affiliations, which can frequently be a source of great richness in life (…) but we should work to make all human beings part of our community of dialogue and concern, showing respect for the human wherever it occurs, and allowing that respect to constraint our national and local politics”. (Cultivating Humanity, p 58-59)

The words, images, metaphors of classical humanist traditions – the communities humanists are part of – can certainly be helpful if we want to elaborate what education entails from a humanist point of view. But classical words and ideas run the risk of all classical words. They easily become stereotypes, even dead metaphors. If they are to continue to be inspiring, they need to be refreshed and completed with new words, new images and metaphors, nourished by different cultures, reflecting different educational situations and expressing their problems, hopes and fears.

But how to adopt the point of view of other cultures in order to question our own notions of culture, community, memory? In order to open them up and make them more inclusive? How to switch from ‘Culture’ to cultures, to radical democratisation of culture? Our westernised humanism needs cheap cameras in every culture and in every part of the world, and a vivid exchange of these pictures, commented in letters, stories, and dialogues by the people. Through their own pictures the new generations will spontaneously discover the plurality of collective identities and through this discovery rediscover the unity of the collective identity of humanity. They will collect the material for a new memory, the memory of the future of mankind as a living community.

And what does this imply for the discovery of new personal values, civic commitments and respect for
differences in ‘world-views’?


To maintain a U.N. human rights paradigm, attention needs to be paid first to Human Rights Education (HRE) then Religious education (RE) or Non Religious education ( NRE, lebenskunde, HEE, Lifestance education, NCEtics) and then civic education (CE) (SEO). Human Rights Education and Religious or Non Religious Education should be complementary, not competitive. We need to build bridges of tolerance and friendship between all types of believers and non-believers.

We don’t need competition for the best religious or humanist (non religious) educational approach, we need cooperation and friendship. These two positions are two sides of a coin. Perhaps we can find the third position as neutral space for an open dialog. The umbrella is Human Rights Education. The Madrid final document will give the main aims and recommendations for development. Education in the pragmatics of human rights (in particular FRB) is the key instrument. Education in a healthy school culture can create the bridge for tolerance and friendship between all types of believers or non believers. Key points for promotion are: respect for plurality of religions, opinions and belief; cross cultural understanding and respect. Tolerance is the tool we have to value in an active way in the educational practice and school culture.

We are on the right track using Human Rights Education (HRE) as an umbrella, by combining Religious Education (RE) in a complementary rather competitive way with Philosophy Education (PE). This becomes a metaphysical foundation for Civic Education (CE) and the relationship of governance to matters of religion or belief. This is a model that can be applied in all cultures and countries.

The two sub-sets of the U.N. phrase “religion” and “or belief” are two sides of the same coin. Using football as a metaphor, we can see human rights (HRE) as neutral serves and a cheerleader for tolerance. We need to have understanding and respect for all believers and non-believers involved in the game, and as a referee monitoring the rules of the game between competing religions and philosophies. Both roles are necessary for Article 18 and the 1981 U.N. Declaration to be an effective human rights instrument to promote tolerance and prevent discrimination based on religion or belief.

Finally, the best we can do is provide help in developing practical products for HR Education all over the world, which are based on the points made in the Madrid document 2001.

Dhyan Vermeulen

I am grateful for inspiration and help. Without the help of humanist friends this paper would never have been written.
Thanks to:

Babu Gogineni Secretary General of the International Humanist Ethical Union, London, UK,
Prof.Dr Henk Manschot University of Humanistic studies, Utrecht, the Netherlands,
Sonja Eggerincks Ministry of Flemish Community Inspector-adviser N-C Ethics,
Dr. Werner Shultz Director Lebenskunde, Berlin Humanisticher Verband Deutschlands,
Nico Stuij Director Humanist Ethical Education National Centre for School Improvement, Utrecht, The Netherlands,
Kjartan Selnes Norsk Huanisk Furbund, Oslo, Norway,
Emma Klarenbeek Humanist Ethical Education National Centre for School Improvement, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

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