Being able to apply human rightsIntercultural CompetenceSkill to work on human rights through various methods (human rights education-related)Uses and/or puts into practice the basics of human rights and human rights education and related methods

Human rights as a self-driven practice

When we think of human rights, we may automatically think of the UN declaration of human rights which came into effect in 1948 as a result of the effects of World War 2. In this case, laws were legislated in an attempt to try and uphold the articles in that declaration, and laws are supposed to be obeyed. This can be viewed as a top-down approach, creating an external force to affect behavior. However, human rights are the responsibility of every human being, and it can actually be more effective when it becomes a self-driven practice. This article looks into the possibility of having a down-top approach for the practice of human rights and having an internal motivation to uphold human rights for every individual.

Why did I choose this tool?

I have seen and experienced that when the concept of human rights is imposed from the outside it is much less effective than when it is encouraged as a self-driven practice. Another issue is that when human rights are only going to be upheld when there is an external authority to enforce them, they will be often ignored. With this article, I aim to show how human rights can be a self-driven practice, by giving examples from different religions.

How does this apply to being a trainer?

As trainers particularly within a European context, we may think that it is up to us to train others on the issue of human rights, particularly those from different cultures. However, this method may not be effective and may even alienate those who have a culture or values that are perceived to be different from ours. However, if we can find in the participants a link between the human rights values that we want to promote and the cultural or religious values that they already have, then we have a much greater chance to be able to reach them and to have common ground on the topic of human rights.

Main content:

Human rights as a self-driven practice

A short historical review of human rights (Allversity, 27/8/2013) shows that human rights have not been permanent throughout history. In other words, human rights go through phases of being violated and being upheld constantly. Every once in a while, a major setback occurs, the latest being WW2. This raises the question of why human rights are difficult to uphold continuously, relative to timing and location.

The current human rights practice model is a top-down one, meaning that there is an authority -the UN- that “grants” the rights. In other words, this authority is stating what the rights are and then attempts to hold the others -countries which are members of the UN- to uphold them. This creates two arguments; first, even though the UN is well recognized all over the world, is not recognized by everyone on the planet and not every country is a member of the UN, especially some distant or isolated communities. It is these distant parts of the world that suffer the most from human rights violations. Second, the universal declaration of human rights is exactly that; universal. It is an agreement among the United Nations countries not relative to time and location, therefore it does not address the value of cultural, traditional and religious differences.

We can see the link between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Universal Declaration Of Human Rights”, 2015), and religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. With a little search, evidence of the roots of human rights can easily be found in religions. Justin Taylor (“The Christian Roots Of Human Rights”, 2016) states that it is “rooted in Christianity”. Similarly, we can derive that human rights’ roots come from theism in general. This addresses the question of where human rights come from originally, and potentially how a religious viewpoint can help to have a better understanding of those roots.

A look at the rights and duties of individuals from the perspective of religion (10 commandments in Christianity for example, expressly forbidding someone from violating the rights of another) shows that there are many examples of early practices of human rights from different religions, particularly if we ignore the fact that the terminology that was used was different in those early times. Those religions motivated individuals to uphold those rights as a self-driven practice, and for some time -mostly in the beginning of religion- the community was as close to a utopia as it could be. Sure, these practices may have only been applied to small communities, but the possibility of utilizing the same concepts and building on what people of those religions already know to promote the modern human rights practice is too essential to miss.

Unfortunately, a lot of human rights violations come from countries and regions that are considered religious, like the middle east for example. Great numbers in the middle east are considered “practicing Muslims”, yet the violations continue and get even worse and worse with time when it is seen that there are no real consequences for those violations. In Iraq for example, Islam has been used so many times for personal benefit and gains. Many killings were in Allah’s name, where in fact it has nothing to do with it. Driven by different agendas, Islam has been constantly used as a tool for evil rather than for good. You can find many examples in international newspapers (“40 Die In Baghdad Massacre As Shia Militia Go On Rampage | Guardian Weekly”, n.d.).

But if we look beyond those bad and incorrect practices of Islam (and other religions in general), the concept of human rights is exactly that of for the UN; Every human being has those rights simply due to being human, nothing else. But the source of those rights in Islam is a different kind of authority, which is a higher authority represented by God, Creator, Allah – Similar to other religions. The human rights in Islam come from the Holy book “Quran” in Surat Al-Isra, verse 70: (“Surah Al-Isra [17:70]”, n.d.)

“And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference.”

The “children of Adam” is the Quran’s way of addressing all the human beings, clearly stating in this verse that each human on this planet is “honored” just by being human, and therefore have been granted rights by the highest authority: Allah, in whom Muslims have their absolute trust.

Women’s rights are another example that we can see in Islam, granting much more rights to women then what the actual practice does. Many of the oppressive laws and legislations are just human interpretations and do not represent the Islamic way. According to Islamic law, women have complete freedom and equal rights to men such as the right to financial independence, the right to choose a husband, the right to orgasm during sex, the right to demand divorce, and the right to work (“Five myths about sharia”, 2016; Al-Turkey, 2008).

We can see similar evidence in Christianity and Judaism as well. In Christianity “There is only what God intended for us to have. Half of this includes elements of a lifestyle that is beneficial to us as humans. The other half is justice.” (“What Is A Biblical View Of Human Rights?”, n.d.), therefore human rights are viewed as our God-given lifestyle. In Judaism, “Human rights are an integral part of the faith and tradition of Judaism. The beliefs that man was created in the divine image, that the human family is one, and that every person is obliged to deal justly with every other person are basic sources of the Jewish commitment to human rights.” (“Declaration On Judaism And Human Rights”, 1974)

By understanding these values and where they come from for Muslims, a group of Muslims, participants in a training for example, can be reminded of those values and principles. This way they can relate to topics about human rights on a much deeper level. Not only that, but it will also bring out their motivation and self-drive to uphold the human rights for themselves and for others because this is what they believe in and -in many cases- what they grew up with. This way, the work of educating or training this group will be actually easier, because the trainer will no longer be addressing a foreign topic but rather putting in context a familiar one.

Building on what learners already know is a well-known method in education called schemata. A schema is a general idea about something. Its plural form is schemata. In order to use schemata in education, teachers should activate prior knowledge, link new information to old information and link different schemata to each other.

This gives a clear logic to linking human rights education to existing values and codes of conduct, and thereby taking a shortcut to the desired result of understanding and upholding rights.

Reflection questions:

  • Why was there a human rights declaration in the first place?
  • Where did the concept of “human rights” come from?
  • How well are human rights preserved and practiced around the world?
  • What if there was no need to enforce human rights?


Do some research on the perspective of human rights according to different religions, if relevant with special focus to the main religion of the group that you are working with most often. Get into their perspective on human rights as much as you can, and take note of the different terminology that they might be using to explain human rights and their approach to it.

Author of the article: Aws Sabah Gheni Al-Adhami

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Editor: Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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The Ten Principles | UN Global Compact. Retrieved August 5, 2018Universal Declaration Of Human Rights. (2015, October 6). Retrieved August 5, 2018The Christian Roots Of Human Rights. (2016, August 1). Retrieved August 5, 2018What Is A Biblical View Of Human Rights. Retrieved August 5, 2018Allversity, Published on Aug 27, 201340 Die In Baghdad Massacre As Shia Militia Go On Rampage | Guardian Weekly. Retrieved August 5, 2018Surah Al-Isra [17:70]. Retrieved August 5, 2018Five myths about sharia. (2016, May 24). Retrieved August 5, 2018Al-Turkey, A. (2008). Human Rights in Islam. In (trans.) (p. 24). Riyadh: Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Saudi Arabia.Declaration On Judaism And Human Rights. (1974, April 23). Retrieved August 5, 2018Using Schemata in Education

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