What is Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education and how Amnesty International helps to implement it

Twelve years ago 47 member states of the Council of Europe signed a Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education. The document took several years to prepare and although not legally binding, it serves as an essential tool in developing human rights education. The Charter’s drafters are certain that education plays a vital role in promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law and the core values of freedom, equality and justice. Human rights education is a powerful tool which helps preventing future human rights violations and violence as well as fight racism, extremism, xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance.

Amnesty International wholly shares this vision and has long made human rights education one of its work’s priorities. It actively engages with young people all over the world in cooperation with partners in dozens of countries creating a multilingual education community.

In 2021 alone more than 4 million people from 212 countries and territories, engaged with HRE programmes organised by Amnesty International and its partners. And in April 2022 in Turin the Council of Europe, the Italian government as its presidency and Amnesty International along with other partners conducted a regional Forum on the present and future of citizenship and human rights education in Europe with young people.

More than 500 human rights activists and educators, education officials and youth leaders participated in the forum. They all worked to review the Charter’s implementation in the past 5 years and to draft proposals to the Council of Europe and its member countries on ways to improve the quality of human rights education in light of the present-day realities, including the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic and reduced access to human rights education in some European countries, such as Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Hungary and Poland.

Human rights education is a vital tool to ensure that we build societies that are more inclusive, diverse and respectful of human rights. But human rights education in our region is under attack — from smear campaigns against educators in Poland and censorship of discussions about LGBTI rights in Hungary to almost complete elimination of human rights education in Belarus and Russia. Young people everywhere are paying for our leaders’ failures

Stasya Denisova, Amnesty International Human Rights Education Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia

Challenges to human rights education

In many countries of the region, including those named above, in the past few years there has been a significant increase in legal and political restrictions concerning human rights education. These can be a direct prohibition of such education in schools, restricted access for non-governmental organisations to education institutions, direct censorship of education programmes, including on the issues of gender identity or reproductive health. Moreover, in the past two years young people across the continent faced serious restrictions to access to education, including human rights education, due to the pandemic. Also, Russia’s recent invasion threatens to nullify all Ukraine’s latest achievements in developing human rights education due to a number of factors.

Meanwhile, in Russia itself, human rights education is underrepresented within the official education system as well as outside it, and the situation is only getting worse. In the recent years a number of international organisations implementing human rights education programmes were declared “undesirable” (Association of Schools of Political Studies of the Council of Europe, Prague Civil Society Centre to name but a few) and Russian organisations designated as “foreign agents” also lost access to educational institutions. Furthermore, in March 2021 a new law came into force that requires all state educational establishments, including schools and higher education institutions, to seek approval for any international cooperation with foreign organisations. The requirement to obtain prior approval from government bodies and Russian authorities’ obsessive stifling of any alternative views on history and culture in favour of those formulated by the government that drives it, effectively represents an open censorship on educational activities.

In Russia “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors” has been prohibited by law since 2013 which in effect blocks any educational or awareness raising activities on LGBTI rights in both formal and informal education systems. Liquidation of the Historical and Educational Society “Memorial” and closure of its 20-year-old school education programme across Russia, whereby schoolchildren worked on research projects into family history, the history of GULAG and Stalin’s repressions, became a blatant attack against all the work on young people’s civil education.

The exclusion of Russia from the Council of Europe threatens yet further degradation of education for democratic citizenship and human rights education, whereas growing repressions against civil society threaten to kill off the last remaining initiatives in this area.

The situation is bleaker still in Belarus, which is not in the Council of Europe but nonetheless has connections with Europe through numerous agreements covering culture and education and thus has an obligation to “encourage democratic and inclusive environment in schools”. In the past two years human rights sector has been almost entirely eliminated, including human rights education in schools, higher education establishments and other institutions. Those few educational projects that continued until summer 2021 were closed down while most non-governmental organisations working on human rights education were liquidated. Furthermore, educators and students were persecuted. Today, it can be said that human rights education in Belarus is in fact fully delegitimised.

In such countries as Turkey, Hungary and Poland, human rights community and human rights education are also under attack. The authorities in these countries put special emphasis on supressing sexual education, gender equality and protection of LGBT+ rights. Also, there is deteriorating situation with cooperation between schools and human rights organisations and independent education centres in Poland and especially in Turkey where human rights activists are effectively denied access to the education system.

What can Amnesty International do

Against this background, at the forum in Turin, representatives of Amnesty International’s national sections in Poland and Hungary supported by the International Secretariat held a working group “Threats to human rights education: How to act?” to discuss ways of overcoming the crisis in human rights education in the region.

Amnesty International aims to use all its experience to counter and where possible to reverse the degradation of human rights education in these countries. The organisation’s task is to develop further its education projects in Europe and Central Asia and adapt them to local conditions. Today in the region the organisation is running 85 projects in total and they are implemented in cooperation with 26 civil society organisations; 46 of these projects are being implemented within the official education system.

In 2021 Amnesty International and its partner organisations engaged 628,703 people from within the official education system and outside it in their education projects. The previous year 2020 was particularly remarkable as the pandemic led to an increase in online education all over the world. The audience of Amnesty International’s Human Rights Academy, the movement’s main platform for online education, grew exponentially. By the end of the year the Academy had more than 200,000 registered students enrolled on 84 different courses in 25 languages.

Moreover, another interactive micro education platform aimed at young people, Human Rights Workout, was also active. Here the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights are reviewed using game-based methods. The platform was launched in 2019 and as of December 2021 the number of students learning on the Human Rights Workout reached 10,000. The platform has three interactive modules in English, Ukrainian, Romanian, Italian, Slovak and Russian.

In 2021 Amnesty International made a certain breakthrough in Central Asia after research into the state of human rights education in Kyrgyzstan with active cooperation of the civil society and the country’s authorities. Having discussed the research, the government made a decision to strengthen human rights education within mainstream school curriculum which is what Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry for Education is currently working on along with civil society partners, academics and Amnesty International.

However, without expanding international efforts and strengthening solidarity of the civil society in all the European and Central Asian countries without exception, the integration of human rights education into the school curricula will remain an impossible dream. This is why Amnesty International has drawn up recommendations for the Council of Europe and its member states calling them to do their utmost to engage youth leaders in discussions about plans in the area of education, consider the interests of vulnerable groups, seek to involve non-governmental organisations in the official education system and in respect to Ukraine, Belarus and Russia support youth activism in every way, as well as independent civil society organisations, academic and teacher communities. This is especially poignant in case of Russia who is trying to isolate itself from the international community. The exclusion of the Russian civil society which is already subject to repressions from the Council of Europe’s attention and specifically from its educational activities, will result in an irreparable damage to all without exception – to the Russian society and to the Europeans.