“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

An appeal for today’s world

by Eliane Perret, psychologist and curative educator

Living in peace is a deeply rooted desire of all people. All the more urgently we are to create social conditions in which it is possible to live together in dignity and freedom today. We are all called upon – each in our own field of responsibility – to make our contribution, otherwise this goal will remain an empty demand. Our decision-makers, elected and appointed by the people, bear a special responsibility. They must be fellow human beings who are orientated in their actions towards the good of all and must not allow themselves to be seduced by conscious or unconscious egotistical claims to power.
  However, in Switzerland in particular, with its unique direct democratic system, all people have a responsibility to make it possible for people to live together as equals. This requires mature personalities who look beyond their own horizons to the world and are willing to recognise and tackle the tasks that lie ahead. In this context, our elementary school is of particular1 importance, as it is – with the support and supplementation of the family – an indispensable training ground for developing the skills of democratic participation in small, age-appropriate steps. Being in a relationship with and with the guidance of their teachers, children and young people can build up a healthy sense of mutual appreciation and respect among each other and develop genuine compassion for suffering fellow human beings. This includes a spontaneous revulsion towards injustice, combined with the desire to contribute to social conditions in which the dignity of all people is not only respected, but lived in mutual give and take. The educational content of our schools should specifically take account of this goal.

Today’s curricula:
Only meagre formulations

But is this still the case? After 30 years of school reforms? If we look in the curricula that are currently binding for German-speaking Switzerland, we find the terms “democracy” and “human rights” in the competence area “Understanding and committing to democracy and human rights”2 A vague formulated description of a so called competence shows what is meant by this is: “Pupils can explain the development, significance and threat to human rights or competences”3 or in the equally vague competence level: “… can explain children’s and human rights”. And now? Teachers standing in practice are aware of the complexity of such topics and that a merely intellectual discussion and clarification of terms is never enough, but a deep going emotional learning process is necessary. This is a demanding but enriching task for teachers, who fortunately (contrary to their training) do not see themselves as learning-coaches but fulfil their task based on a personal view of human nature and to this purpose use the wide range of subjects in an individual and creative way.

“We could actually all be friends ...”

Learning to observe precisely, for example, is part of a technically sound and promising drawing lesson. We tested this and each child traced the outline of its hand on a blank sheet. When the sketches were laid out on the floor in a helter-skelter, each child had to find its own hand or be able to recognise that of another child.4 It is easy to imagine that this was a challenging task. For although the children were of different genders and ages, had different skin colours, and were different sizes, their hands looked very similar and could only be distinguished by minor characteristics. This gave rise to the rather philosophical question of why this was so difficult. Children like to think about such questions, they feel that they are taken seriously and that they are important.
  They soon came up with various hypotheses, which they discussed among each other. Along the way, they practised listening to each other calmly, pausing for a moment and adding the reflections of the other children to their own ones (soberly referred to as “generic skills” in the curriculum). In the end, they agreed that people are very similar in many ways and cannot be categorised as superior or inferior. “We could actually all be friends,” said one pupil thoughtfully else often being involved in arguments. Wasn’t that what was written in the first article of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights put into simple words?

After the horrors
of the Second World War

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
  This statement in Article 1 echoes the preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, followed by Article 2, which prohibits discrimination: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status. Furthermore, no distinction may be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”5
  When Eleanor Roosevelt, Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at three o’clock in the morning on 10 December 1948, a document had been created after the horrors of the Second World War that was intended to make peaceful coexistence possible worldwide. It was drafted in a two-year discussion process by eight thoughtful and responsible men and women from Australia, Chile, China, France, Lebanon, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States and was subsequently adopted by the then 58 member states of the United Nations General Assembly with no votes against and eight abstentions. It has since been translated into more than 200 languages.

A globally valid catalogue of values

Even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has no binding status under international law, it was the first time in history that it set out which rights should apply equally to all people. A common ideal to be achieved by all peoples and nations was created, which was to pave the way for people all over the world to live in dignity and freedom, a condition for lasting peace. The right to life, liberty and security, the prohibition of slavery and torture, freedom of thought and belief, the right to freedom of expression, education, labour, health, and well-being were derived from this, to name just a few of the more differentiated paragraphs. Many of these were later incorporated into national constitutions or have since become binding international law for all states. This legacy, based on the bitter experiences of a global war, unambiguously states that no one has the right to use force to determine social coexistence or is authorised to restrict, curtail, or disregard the rights conferred by nature to all human beings. To emphasise this demand, the United Nations founded the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1993. Its purpose is to promote and enforce human rights at national and international level.
  The more sobering it is to reflect on world events in the decades that followed, because unfortunately we are a long way from recognising the validity of these rights all over the world. The so-called post-war period is characterised by armed conflicts worldwide; were there only 26 days without war in September 1945.

Making the efforts
for a global peace palpable

Of course, in this drawing lesson and the following school lessons, we were unable to go into such depth about the principles of peaceful and dignified coexistence set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the children heard about these endeavours for global peace, they were made palpable for them. This could be built on later, because treating people with dignity is not something that can be taken for granted and put on the wish list. It must be established, strengthened, promoted, constantly renewed, and carried forward in the course of living together – an important field of work in which psychology and education would have a lot to say, based on natural law and a personal conception of man.
  Perhaps as Eleanor Roosevelt answered the question: “Where do human rights begin?” – “In the small places, close to home. So close and so small that these places cannot be found on any map of the world. And yet these places are the world of the individual: The neighbourhood where he lives, the school or university he attends, the factory, the farm, or the office where he works. These are the places where every man, woman, and child seek equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal dignity without discrimination. As long as these rights do not apply there, they are not relevant anywhere else. If the citizens concerned do not take action themselves to protect these rights in their personal environment, we will look in vain for progress in the wider world.”5 However, responsibility cannot lie solely with individuals, as the protection of human dignity must also be enshrined in the constitutions of countries and in international conventions and taken seriously. Switzerland, with its direct democracy, therefor offers the best conditions.

What do we tell
the children at Christmas?

But here, too, we need to be vigilant and take care, because the efforts to remove our country from its neutrality and involve it in the war front are loud and brazen. We need a strong counterweight to withstand the attempts at blackmailing pressure and to put a stop to the sophisticated spin-doctoring of opinion. If we do not do this, we will be faced with our children and young people, as Annemarie Buchholz-Kaiser, psychologist and historian, warned emphatically more than twenty years ago: “Will we tell our children next Christmas that there used to be democracies? Countries, where people were free, where they could decide on their laws, where every citizen and every inhabitant had inherent dignity, where there were human rights and everyone had the right to their own thoughts, their own opinions, a free opinion, a right to their own religion and tradition, to legal proceedings that were bound by evidence? Will we tell them next year that – in the past – people were very concerned about peace, that they fought for it with all their strength and conviction? That they thought about how to help the poorer countries of the world? That there were once voices in favour of peace and social justice? That there was once a Switzerland in which several language regions, several mentalities, several religions had developed a model of peaceful coexistence thanks to direct democracy, a filigree work of democratic organisation from the bottom up, which would also offer a way out for crisis and war regions of the world? Do we tell them all this in the imperfect? Or do we do something else first?”6
  I would rather tell them how a Swedish Sami had greeted the well-known Swiss photographer Werner Bischof: “So, so, you come from Switzerland, the land of peace.”7  •

1 In Switzerland elementary school is called “Volksschule” which includes the first six years of primary school and three years of secondary school.
2 Area of competence RGZ 8. www.zh.lehrplan21.ch, retrieved 6 November 2023
3 Similar tasks can also be found in the book “Wie ich mit Kindern über Kriege und andere Katastrophen spreche» (How I talk to children about wars and other disasters) by Eliane Perret and Rüdiger Maas.
4 https://www.ohchr.org/en/human-rights/universal-declaration/translations/english
5 ttps://www.planet-wissen.de/geschichte/menschenrechte/geschichte_der_menschenrechte/pwiedieallgemeineerklaerungdermenschenrechte100.html; accessed on 6 November 2023
6 Buchholz-Kaiser, Annemarie. “Was erzählen Sie nächstes Jahr zu Weihnachten Ihren Kindern?” (What will you tell your children on Christmas next year?) In: Current Concerns from 21 December 2001
7 Caption in the magazine “Du”, No. 6, June 1949

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