Changing attitudes to human rights, one debate at a time

By Saanya Gulati

Debating encourages constructive dialogue on human rights issues. It is a powerful way to deliver human rights education as it can fundamentally change the way people perceive an issue. Check out our educator’s 5-step guide to organizing a human rights debate, modelled on the national debate series in Kenya.

Participating in a debate requires extensive knowledge of the different arguments around an issue. But it also has a personal impact on those involved in the process. “Winning the debate changed something profound in me,”shares Nyambura Karumba, a participant in the 2014 inter-varsity human rights debate organized by Amnesty International Kenya and the Students Consortium for Human Rights Advocacy (SCOHRA). One of the turning points for Nyambura, as she argued against the legalization of torture, was the realization that she was talking about human lives. “Once people start to refer to human beings as animals, you know something is wrong.”

Winning the debate changed something profound in me
Nyambura Karumba, a participant in Kenya's 2014 inter-varsity human rights debate

From an organizer’s perspective, the challenge is to make the event engaging and accessible so that its impact is meaningful and inclusive. “When you tell someone to come for a debate they usually think that it is an intellectual process,” says Charles Nyukuri, Growth and Human Rights Education Officer at Amnesty International Kenya, who is involved in organizing debates in the region. One of the creative methodologies, referred to as ‘theatre-debates,’ uses a combination of theatre and debate, which is effective in engaging a wider audience.

For the inter-varsity human rights debate, which is held annually across Kenyan universities, there are five key steps that make it successful.

1. Inviting people to take part 

The first step is to put out a call for applications, across schools or universities, in the region where you are organizing the debate. This stage involves publicizing the event through various communications channels, including posters, television, radio and social media. “There are so many universities in Kenya that the challenge is to reach out to all of them,” says Charles.

The call for applications encourages students to express their interest in debating, or being involved in other capacities, such as regional representatives, team leaders and judges. It also requires students to write a paper on the debate topic, which helps them to focus their argument, and ensures that they are well prepared. 

2. Preparing regional trainers

In Kenya, universities are categorized into different clusters based on their geographic region. Each region is allocated a facilitator who is responsible for building the capacity of participants and familiarizing them with the modalities and format of the debate. Preparing the regional facilitators ensures that they are in turn able to train other students in their region.  

3. Preparing students on campus

Once the regional facilitators are trained, they conduct campus workshops to familiarize students with the debate process. In Kenya, the inter-varsity debate championship is modelled on the British Parliamentary system and the Mjadala Kenya system. The workshops therefore take students through the debate layout and roles which include concepts such as the official opposition, point of order, rebuttals, cross examination and points of information, so that all participants arrive on an equal footing for the final day.

Justus Nyang’aya, Amnesty International Kenya Country Director, stands on stage with the winning teams at the 2015 Intervarsity Human Rights Debate at Kabarak University. Nakuru, Kenya, October 2015 © Amnesty International Kenya

4. Regional debates

The fourth stage is the regional debate where everyone who is keen to participate can compete. This acts as a qualifying stage for regional participants, and decides who will take part in the debate finals. 

5. Debate finals and music

The debate finals are a two-day event. The first day consists of the preliminary stage in which participants are assigned a team of judges and given a particular theme to discuss. Participants are not told the specific theme until they enter the room, but it is always connected to the larger debate topic. Past topics have included refugee rights, torture and national security, and poverty and housing rights.

Winners are announced on the following day, and a concert called Jamnesty takes place in the evening, where participants are encouraged to unwind and Jam With Amnesty. The performances combine the creative expressions and artistic talents of the students with local artists in the area, all of whom are encouraged to engage with the debate topic.

Victor Shanzu, a student at Kabarak University School of Law participates in the finals of the 2015 Intervarsity Human Rights Debate. Nakuru, Kenya, October 2015 © Amnesty International Kenya

On the day that winners are announced, a number of distinguished guests and organizations are brought in, culminating in a live debate. Last year, members of the Kenyan Refugee Network, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as other organizations that work on refugee rights took part.

“Bringing in someone who has the authority to speak on the subject helps students to understand the topic from a professional perspective,” shares Charles. It also gives them an opportunity to hear individual stories. For example, in the 2016 inter-varsity debate three torture survivors shared their experiences with the audience.

The human rights debate championship, which is now in its fourth year, has increased its reach from 300 students across 15 universities to over 1,000 students across 21 universities in Kenya. Debates are also organized at a regional level, which occur more frequently through the year. In fact, Charles attended a regional debate on police brutality in Kenya, a few days after speaking with us. The format included spoken-word and poetry performances, both related to the debate topic – “so that by the time we get to the debate, the audience is engaged,” explains Charles.

Subscribe to the Human Rights Education Blog Series