Tracing back the origins of some sort of declaration of human rights is not that simple. Some situate it at least 2600 years ago in the Akkadian Cyrus Cylinder, declaring racial equality, others the Edicts of Ashoka in the 2500 BCE Maurya Empire, which sets out a deontological code. The late 1700s French Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen, outlining principles of unalienable natural rights and sovereignty paved the way for other Enlightenment statements such as the soaring American Declaration of Independence and, later, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The latter is a powerful set of normative statements that should be a reference in every school and organisation.
Behind the actual writing of these remarkable historic statements are people, and it is commonly known that the driving force behind the Declaration of Human Rights was the chair of the Human Rights Commission at the time, the visionary and deeply ethical Eleanor Rooseveld, a truly wonderful and inspiring woman. It was her unflagging passion and dedication to the project that marked those around her and in a way it’s not surprising, writing something as significant as a declaration of human rights for all of humanity is enough to make someone give their everything! That is a key for reflection.
The problem with these normative statements is that once they have been drawn up, they remain at the lofty level of the deontological code, a type of 10 commandments that look down on us from a higher place. One might gaze at the words and statements in awe and even be asked to abide by them, but since they were written by someone else, the fundamental pedagogical act of integrating and owning information by shaping it oneself which creates great productive energy, cannot be harnessed. The statements are somehow inert, pre-baked, off the shelf.
And history has shown us that there is a difference between saying something and doing it. The Cyrus Cylinder declares forward-looking tolerance but Cyrus was no angel, and the French Rights of Man, like so many other Enlightenment ethical treatises, applies to some and not others, most especially those who bore the yoke of European slavery and expansion across much of the planet at the time. Where were their rights?
Perhaps committing to a series of statements as a community is a way of consolidating not only what we think is important, but of galvanising us to live actively by those statements: precisely because they are our own.
This is why at our school, we decided to embark on a collaborative project whereby staff and students would brainstorm the types of behaviours that we wish to see in ourselves and others, to then vote for the statements that emerged and to use these statements as our guidelines. It does not mean that these supersede other moral imperatives, but it does mean that these statements were created by the community creatively and collaboratively, and that there’s some ownership involved.
The statements themselves are quite concrete and simple, and perhaps in that tangible simplicity there is a power that one loses in abstract, general and universalist claims: it’s a call to action and an invitation to live out human rights (and, of course, responsibilities!) every day!
In fact, one of the precepts of The United Nations Office of Human Rights, who are working with the International School of Geneva on a Global Citizenship Education course, is to bring human rights down to earth, into the corridors of the school, into each classroom, the playground and workspace. It is in these spaces where simple decisions lay out the type of respect we truly show for one another.
If you haven’t already done so, I would recommend a bottom-up approach to some normative moral statements by your community and for your community, much the way teachers would agree on norms with students at the beginning of a school year. It engages the community and shows us what’s important to us here and now, in this precious moment we share together alive on planet earth.