On a humid day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, law students gather in a seminar room to learn about international human rights law. They reflect on the violations of fundamental rights that occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime less than fifty years ago.
Several thousand miles away, in London, a group of secondary school students discuss the human rights implications of families being unable to afford essential utilities.
In India, pupils discuss caste discrimination in their human rights class, while in Namibia, students are learning about human rights through the concept of ‘ubuntu’.
These snapshots reveal that human rights education – education ‘for’, ‘about’, and ‘through’ universal and internationally guaranteed human rights – is delivered across diverse educational contexts.
Originally proposed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in the 1970s, HRE was firmly incorporated into the United Nations (UN) human rights agenda following the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and the World Programme for Human Rights Education in the 2000s.
It is now delivered in disparate settings across the globe, both inside and outside ‘formal’ education systems.
The above snapshots also demonstrate ways that educators attempt to explain human rights through locally relevant issues or frameworks.
The process can be important in contexts where ‘human rights’ and associated UN jargon and institutions are perceived as politically sensitive, irrelevant and/or an imposition of western or ‘other’ values.
Since human dignity is foundational to the international human rights framework, it is unsurprising to find it emerge as a growing theme in the discourse around human rights education.
Human dignity has been described as a principle on which human dignity should be based, a goal which human rights education should pursue, and a tool to help students understand why human rights matter.
Yet, the boundaries of human dignity remain contested, with a range of conceptualisations persisting across diverse cultures and context.
Over the course of a two-year project titled Locating “Human Dignity” in Cambodia’ researchers from University of Sydney, Macquarie University, Queen’s University Belfast and the Centre for the Study of Humanitarian Law in Cambodia have been exploring the possibilities and challenges of integrating the concept of “human dignity” into human rights curricula in Cambodia’s law schools.
Dialogue with human rights educators in Cambodia raised the possibility that “human dignity” might provide a useful tool through which to discuss and promote foundational human rights values in a politically sensitive climate where they have become increasingly associated with political opposition to the dominant Cambodian People’s Party.
This makes human rights education increasingly delicate and challenging for educators. However, in such a context it is arguably even more valuable for future lawyers and legal practitioners to further their understanding of the underpinning principles of human rights.
Over the course of the project, the team interviewed and conducted focus groups with human rights educators from around Cambodia.
They also held focus groups and trial teaching sessions with law students in Phnom Penh, using locally relevant case studies to explore “human dignity” and its relationship to human rights.
Two key findings emerged. First, that while educators highlighted the potential importance of the “human dignity” concept in human rights education, more teaching resources were required.
For example, one educator noted that the concept “Is very much in need of explanation. If we don't understand, we cannot teach others and [may] make them even more confused”.
Another suggested: “[i]f you can publish a book and state the general terms, the principles for an individual to have dignity…legal conditions or traditional legal conditions, it would be easy for me to teach.”
The second finding was that using case studies as an entry point sparked animated conversations around how “human dignity” and other human rights concepts were understood in Cambodia.
Students engaged in discussion on the gendered dimensions of dignity, resonance with Khmer social values, Buddhist concepts, and rights and responsibilities more broadly.
For example, during a discussion based on a case study on the theme of the dignity of the dead, one student mentioned that a traditional funeral with Buddhist rituals should still be arranged, “because it is the last chance for them to listen to various chant and dharmas according to the tradition that we, Cambodians, have to prepare…The funeral is a good deed and dignity for all of us.”
On the value of the case study approach, one student noted that “I can gain some additional knowledge related to case analysis and increase knowledge about dignity and human rights to another level…Through the discussion, it gave me new knowledge from all of you, and all of you also received new knowledge from me.”
Educators also reflected positively on the ways that engagement with “human dignity” could inform their teaching practice.
For example, at a workshop with Cambodian educators in May 2022, one participant noted that talking about “human dignity” made them feel more confident in their ability teach human rights and foundational human rights concepts, as it provoked deeper reflections on what these concepts meant.
This initial research suggests that there is an appetite for additional resources on ”human dignity”, and that a case study approach might provide one way in which to introduce the concept in a legal education context.
The project team have worked to design teaching materials for four sessions on ‘human dignity’ that can be adapted to suit existing human rights law courses in Cambodia.
Drawing on the team’s research over the past two years, the materials include several case studies drawn from relevant bodies and institutions of law, within Cambodia and beyond.
In each case study, students are provided with the facts of the case and the role that “human dignity” played in the judgment, before being asked to consider discussion questions that aim to foster reflection on the concept’s meaning and purpose in that context.
The hope is that “human dignity” may act as a helpful entry point through which to reflect on human rights, both as an international framework and as something relevant to Cambodia.
Dr Rachel Killean
Prof. Chris McCrudden (QUB)
Prof. Hastings Donnan (QUB)
Dr Gillian Kane
Dr Christoph Sperfeldt (Macquarie)
Ms Boravin Tann (CSHL)
Mr Kimsan Soy (CSHL)