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Guest blog by Emma Lough. Emma Lough is practitioner in human rights education and research.

From September 2021 – February 2022 Emma Lough worked alongside Just Fair and our  Community Researchers on a project which used action research to explore what economic, social and cultural rights mean in communities and whether a human rights-based approach can add value to local activism. Emma then continued to provide support to the Community Researchers as they claimed the right to talk about rights by developing a human rights card game.

Are human rights fit for purpose?

This was the question I was left with and still think about after working with a group of community activists and Just Fair on a research project exploring the value of human rights to community activism. This blog summarises our learning journey and how human rights, in the future, could look a little different.

Getting going

We started with questions about whether human rights could be made more relevant to people in a day-to-day sense and have a meaningful impact in their lives and communities. Is there a way to bridge the gap between the dominance of lawyers, funders and well-established organisations in conversations about human rights? Our assumption at the outset was ‘yes’, and then, ‘how might we get there?’

We worked together to explore a human rights-based approach and heard from activists around the UK about how they had used it to enact meaningful change in areas from housing and poverty to mental health and disability. This was eye-opening – seeing the commitment of participating activists to improve the lives of those in their communities and how human rights could help them do this.

Some surprises

Along the way, we also realised that the language around human rights does not work for everyone and that there is as much learning to be done by the ‘experts’ involved in human rights education. About what rights do or don’t mean in practice and why this isn’t the only language to talk about issues of injustice, exclusion, dignity, trust, power and accountability.

Our learning

On completing this research project, my key takeaways are that we need to:

Address issues of power

There are always power dynamics in educational contexts. These are complicated. Talking about them doesn’t fix them but they need to be addressed to avoid the one-way direction of travel between ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ that human rights education often falls into.

Understand the value of difference and conflict

People are different. Human rights are political. Bringing difficult questions into the open is important. It builds connection, respect and trust.

Recognise the need for human rights to evolve

How we frame human rights is rooted to a specific place and time. As a legal framework, human rights are relatively static. But if there is value in them, they will evolve to reflect the people and experiences they were designed to protect in different cultural contexts and using an intersectional lens.

Tools and actions

The project generated several practical tools for activists, organisations, funders, and practitioners to use human rights to bring about social change. These include the human rights manifesto co-authored by the community activists, Just Fair’s organisational audit, seeking to consolidate a culture of human rights and embed this learning within the sector, and a card game developed by the community activists to start conversations about rights at a local level.

Take action by using and sharing these resources to strengthen our collective understanding of the value of human rights and to move human rights forward to be valuable and accessible to everyone.

Read more:

Just Fair Community Researchers evaluation report

Who’s rights are they anyway? The Community Researchers take on the PANEL principles

A Manifesto for a Human Rights-Based Approach | Just Fair

Background image by Tsveta Pesheva