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Student Strikes: An Opportunity for Human Rights Education?

Published on 14 Mar 2019




Following the lead of Swedish 16-year-old, Greta Thunberg, students globally are skipping school to attend strikes calling for action on climate change. However, teachers, principals, and governments are often unsure how to respond – do they support their students and let them strike, or do they try to keep them in the classroom?

But, perhaps, the more important question is, why do striking and learning have to be seen as mutually exclusive?

Human rights education (that is, education that teaches students about human rights while also fully respecting their human rights) is seen as an important part of the human rights framework. The right to human rights education has been articulated in various international rights instruments, including the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRD) and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, adopted in December 2011. Human rights education (HRE) is often treated synonymously with other overlapping ‘educations’, like global citizenship education and education for sustainable development: In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, HRE was recognised as an important tool in furthering sustainable development.

On  4-6 November 2019 in Tromsø, Norway, over 100 civil society and government representatives will come together to participate in the 19th Informal ASEM Seminar on Human Rights. The theme of the Seminar is "Human Rights Education" and it will be an opportunity to reflect on the successes of HRE and the future of HRE in ASEM Partner Countries. In particular, the Seminar will consider HRE in school systems, equality of access to HRE, learning HRE beyond the classroom, and the role of HRE in professional training.

While the inclusion of HRE in schools varies significantly across ASEM Partner Countries – sometimes it’s a timetabled subject, other times the learning is integrated throughout the curricula – what is most important is that it remains in touch with students’ own experiences of human rights and the world around them. The school climate strikes reveal that students are desperately willing to engage and act on climate change issues, and so the strikes should be seen as a teachable moment and opportunity for classroom discussion on human rights, climate change, and sustainable development.

In an interview with The Spinoff, Principal Ivan Davis of Western Springs College in New Zealand said that he believes supporting student participation in the climate strikes is a part of his role in “educating students about how protest could change the world”. Similarly, Diane Reay, Professor of Education at Cambridge University in the UK, was quoted in The Guardian to say, “Some people have argued that children are missing out on learning. Well, I think it’s a positive learning experience to come together collectively in a common cause.”

Of course, the climate strike is not the only instance where teachers can engage students’ civil participation and engagement for better learning outcomes. In Wellington, New Zealand, students demonstrated against ‘rape-culture’ after a series of sexist jokes were posted on Facebook by students from a local school. The students also called for better teaching about consent in the sex education curriculum. In Italy, students demanded “no more exploitation through free labour” in strikes against the system of student work placements. And in Bosnia-Herzegovina, students protested against ethnically divided schools, calling for Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims to all be educated together. These examples provide perfect opportunities to teach students about women’s rights and sexual rights, about workers’ rights, and about students’ right to an education which promotes “understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups” (Article 26 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)).

While the subject of the protest opens up teaching possibilities, so too does the act of protest itself. In particular, student strikes and protests provide an opportunity to educate students about Articles 19 and 20 of the UDHR, the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Equally important is teaching students about their responsibilities, as well as their rights: in anticipation of the strike teachers can take a moment to emphasise why protests should remain peaceful, and the link between the right to freedom of speech and the responsibility to not promote hate speech.

While there are certainly challenges to navigate when students decide a protest is more important than school, the opportunity for HRE and education for sustainable development should not be forgotten.



About the author

Rebecca FRANKUM comes to the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) from New Zealand, where she is currently finishing her Masters in European Union Studies. Rebecca is particularly interested in researching and writing about human rights, media and democracy, and the Asia-Pacific region.



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