UN launches human rights initiative in universities

Kenyan universities will start teaching human rights to arts students, in an initiative spearheaded by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR.

Five universities will be selected later this year to pilot the project, in which arts students will take a unit on the subject.

Already the faculty of arts at Egerton University has signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Nairobi, and will commence teaching human rights early next year.

The purpose of the project is to contribute to improved knowledge of human rights and to encourage its integration into professional and personal behaviour and practice.

Currently in Kenya, only law students study human rights, and only those majoring in human rights law get in-depth knowledge. Growing understanding of rights is considered urgent in a country that in 2007-08 experienced deadly post-election ethnic conflict.

A human rights institute operated by the NGO the Kenya Human Rights Commission also teaches the subject at postgraduate level offering diplomas. But it is often plagued by lack of funding and personnel to teach the mainly civil society workers it targets.

The new higher education initiative will not only improve human rights understanding among many more undergraduates, but will also help many graduates in the job market because Kenya has a flourishing civil society sector advocating rights, and a progressive constitution with an elaborate bill of rights at its core.

“The initial pilot phase will be launched in five universities as a common core course at the faculty level,” said Uchenna Emelonye, the OHCHR representative to Kenya. “Thereafter we shall endeavour to make the course common at university level.

“Depending on the readiness of the pilot universities, we expect to roll out the course next academic year – September 2012 – or any other time convenient to universities,” he told University World News.

The decision to teach human rights, he added, was in line with a UN declaration stressing the importance of human rights education.

In December 2004 the UN General Assembly proclaimed the World Programme for Human Rights Education. In its second phase, from 2010-14, the programme is focusing in particular on introducing human rights education into higher education, as well as among teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officials and military personnel.

The subject of human rights is multidisciplinary in nature, applies to different aspects of life and can be taught with flexibility. As such, higher education institutions should have no difficulties accommodating it in their curriculum, Emelonye said.

A curriculum development conference with representatives from academia, the UN, the judiciary, lawyers, civil society and public institutions will be held later this year.

“Thereafter OHCHR will support national stakeholders in drafting the human rights curriculum for undergraduate studies in Kenya”, Emelonye told World University News.

Once a curriculum is in place, lecturers selected by universities will be trained by the UN office on all aspects of the subject including methodology, scope and context. The curriculum will be freely available to all Kenyan universities interested in teaching the subject.