UNESCO Chair of Human Rights Fights Case for Humanities.

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‘Human Rights, Humanities and Higher Education’: Jean-Paul Lehners, Geoffrey Manton Building, MMU, Monday, 22nd April

Words by Neil Harrison

Photograph by
This week’s IHSSRresearch seminar sees MMU play host to the first UNESCO Chair of Human Rights and recently retired Professor of Global History at the University of Luxembourg, Jean-Paul Lehners. Professor Lehners, who is a member of the Council of Europe and regularly advises governments on human rights issues, is, during his first visit to the region, at the university to deliver a lecture entitled ‘Human Rights, Humanities and Higher Education.’
Professor Lehner begins by explaining the current state of European and global policy regarding human rights and education. He explains:
“In December 2011, the general assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Right to Human Rights Education. The text contains a number of concepts: opportunities, spirit of participation, inclusion, responsibility, equality, freedom of expression, the right to information and the prevention of human rights violations.”
“Human rights, education and training encompasses … education about human rights, which includes: providing knowledge and understanding of human rights norms and principles, the values that underpin them and the mechanisms for their protection. Education through human rights including learning and teaching in a way that respects the rights of both educators … and learners. And education for human rights, which includes empowerment of persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and to respect and uphold the rights of others.”
Culminating in a plea for higher education institutions to include explicit human rights policies within their respective mission statements, Professor Lehners cites the 2009 Venice Statement which was partly organised by UNESCO, stating:
“A human rights based approach requires that science and its applications are consistent with fundamental human rights principle. While the enjoyment of academic freedom requires the autonomy of higher education institutions, higher education as a public good … must be a matter of responsibility and economic support of all governments.”
Therefore, it is clear the council believes that the burden of responsibility for the implementation and upholding of these cited principles should lie, not simply with the academic institutions, but also with the state.
Professor Lehners concludes the introductory section of his lecture with some recommendations for universities in terms of adopting what he describes as “a human rights dimension” when constructing their strategic literature.
“It is already a progress[ion] if some rights are mentioned, for example, freedom of expression. However, a better approach, of course, would be the [explicit] inclusion of human rights in codes of conduct, in mission statements and plans of action.”
From here he believes that universities can make the human rights dimension ‘transversal,’ and ensure it concerns an institution’s ‘learning, research, management, and service to society,’ cementing the involvement of teachers, students and staff and “mainstreaming” human rights.
Here the professor begins to focus his discussion on the ‘added value that the humanities can bring to the study of human rights.’ With an emphasis on his personal academic field, namely History, he delves into a historiography of human rights, beginning:
“Research on the concept of human rights has long been dominated by lawyers. Historians until the recent period have made only a few contributions to the subject. Is this linked to the fact that a historical approach to human rights is questionable?”
He acknowledges many of the arguments against the validity of historical research on the subject of human rights, simultaneously countering each with his personal view that this type of research is valuable.
“Is it the aim of history to legitimize [contemporary human rights] through a linear causality? It is the historian’s duty … to identify crucial turning points. Without history I think misinterpretations would be the order of the day.”
“Throughout history,” he continues, “there have been many barriers and limitations on the notion of human rights. From the transplantation of western ideology into different global cultures, to the linguistic and gender limitations which exist to this day, the French catch-all term ‘Droits de l’homme’ (Rights of Man) being a prime example of gender inequality.”
From here we are taken on a journey from antiquity, via the Magna Carta, The French Revolution, the ideologies of Jeremy Bentham and Karl Marx and the long shadow cast by both 20th century World Wars and particularly the 1948 Universal Declaration of human rights, which Professor Lehners explains, came about as a direct consequence of the suffering inflicted and experienced during World War II. This phenomenon, he emphasizes, is not without precedent. Human rights declarations appear following both the American and French Revolutions and have traditionally been seen as a reaction to ‘painful experience.’ Furthermore, each author of a particular human rights text is influenced by those that have gone before, which makes the understanding of historical human rights legislation all the more important.
Guiding his audience in the direction of the work of American historian, Lynn Hunt,  he offers her interpretation of the notion:
“Human rights require three interlocking points: Natural;inherent in human beings, Equal; the same for everyone and Universal; applicable everywhere. They will become meaningful when they gain political content. [Hunt’s] interpretation induces the paradox of self-evidence: If human rights are self-evident, natural, why do they need to be declared?”
This direction necessarily leads to the philosophical aspects of the debate regarding human dignity, which Professor Lehners duly acknowledges, citing works by Adorno, and more recently, Ruth Macklin. He continues with an unabashed bias towards history, exploring how it came to be that human rights study in the field has gained currency over the last few decades.
“So, what has changed in the human rights discourse in the last years? One new factor is that historians have entered into the debate.”
Lehners discusses at length the work of, again, Lynn Hunt, particularly her book Inventing Human Rights and also that of her contemporary, Samuel Moyn, and his The Last Utopia. According to Moyn, ‘human rights made sense to a large part of the population only after 1968.’ In support of this, Professor Lehners offers examples such as the protests following the Vietnam War, dissidence in Eastern Europe and the peace movement.
The essence of the argument put forth by Jean-Paul Lehners in this lecture, therefore, is that the nature of the discourse surrounding human rights is extremely complex. To highlight this he invokes examples as wide-ranging as court cases involving dwarf-tossing, the argument surrounding the right to wear a bhurka and the rights of a pregnant woman seeking an abortion over those of an unborn child. At every tangent of the debate lies a potential philosophical, legal and political wrangle. The lecture is littered with difficult questions; when discussing the 1948 declaration’s ‘protection of families’ aspect, Lehner immediately asks, “who decides what constitutes a family? Is a family the same now as it was in 1948?” The abstract nature of the concept of human dignity is dealt with in both a philosophical and legal context and the speaker’s insights are at once illuminating and perplexing. There are no clear answers here.
One thing that does become clear is the professor’s determination to see universities, and specifically the humanities subjects, playing a central role in the future debate:
“In order to understand human rights, we have to contextualise them. Humanities and social sciences have an important part in this process. Human rights…are meant to shift between texts and reality. What can I do with human rights declarations if I am poor and too weak to defend myself? It is…of utmost importance within the context of the financial and economic crisis today.”
“Human rights are the result of the learning process and they respond to experiences of injustice and suffering. Narratives based on publicly articulated experiences of injustice have to be added to the narratives based on written documents.”
It is with this task he charges his fellow humanities scholars.
For information about upcoming research seminars and lectures please visit IHSSR’s website
Neil Harrison is studying Social History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is an aspiring journalist and a terrible guitar player. Read his blog LooseRiver and follow him on Twitter @LooseRiver

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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