Where are the Human Rights in Social Justice Education? by Brian Arao

Prior to beginning my doctoral studies in international and multicultural education at the University of San Francisco, my knowledge of human rights was embarrassingly shallow. I entered my program with only a vague awareness of Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and no awareness of the content of said document) and an on-again off-again membership in the Human Rights Campaign. In retrospect, my ignorance is unsurprising. I was, after all, raised and educated in the United States, a nation with a long history of decrying human rights violations abroad while excepting itself from adherence to international human rights covenants and treaties, including those to which we are signatories and, theoretically, required to enact and enforce (Ignatieff, 2006). The lack of commitment to human rights is evident in our educational system. Because the U.S. is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), human rights education is required for inclusion in our school curricula, yet is only haphazardly present therein. As such, most of our citizens still have very little awareness and understanding of international human rights law and how it might relate to our own lives (Suarez, 2007; The World As It Could Be, 2010).

Thankfully, my doctoral program offered an emphasis in human rights education, which sounded like something that would align well with my strong interest in teaching for social justice. I decided to explore the concentration, enrolling in some of its required courses. It was in these courses that, for the first time, I learned about human rights in an intentional and robust manner. Through study of the UDHR, and a sampling of the many human rights documents and laws that built and expanded upon it since it was adopted by the United Nations nearly 65 years ago, I came to understand that human rights are not nearly as abstract as I had presumed. In point of fact, the primacy of human rights and our communal obligation to protect and uphold them are clearly and tangibly codified into international law. It is more than rhetoric, for example, that advocates for same-sex civil marriage pursue this work under the banner of human rights. See article 16 of the UDHR – the right to marry and form a family is described as something to be afforded to every person, not only to opposite-sex couples. It is not difficult to make the argument, then, that the fact that my own recent marriage is not recognized as such by the federal government is not simply unfair, but an obstruction of my full access to a human right.

Sadly, this is but one of myriad examples of how the globally recognized human rights of marginalized and oppressed social groups are regularly violated. Here, it seems to me, is the point at which social justice education and human rights discourse should quite naturally converge. The potential for deepened learning and positive social change strikes me as enormous.

Consider, for example, what it could mean if we in higher education brought a human rights lens to our efforts to prevent sexual violence on college campuses. The relevant international human rights documents supplement the already-strong case against sexual assault and rape-permissive cultures. Multiple human rights treaties, covenants, and declarations can be understood as prohibiting sexual assault, particularly as a form of violence used primarily against women. Human rights scholars have compellingly used the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to frame rape and sexual assault as a human rights violation that disproportionately impacts women (Bunch, 1990, 1995; Peters & Wolper, 1995; Stamatopoulou, 1995; Thomas & Beasley, 1993).

Moreover, a human rights approach broadens the scope of the problem of sexual violence and helps students to understand it as a concern that reaches well beyond the borders of the American college campus; indeed, it is widely shared across cultures and countries all over the world. As such, the framework of human rights may help to expand an often U.S.-centric social justice discourse and encourage global forms of solidarity and coalition-building.

For college men, who are socialized into a form of masculinity that can encourage rule breaking (Davis & Laker, 2004; Edwards & Jones, 2009; Harris III, 2010), a human rights argument against all forms of sexual violence may be more compelling than a legalistic one. Indeed, a human rights approach may fundamentally reframe the problem of sexual violence for college students of all genders as not only an illegal behavior, but also something from which they and their peers have an innate right as human beings to be free.

I believe there is significant and similar potential for infusing a human rights approach to other forms of social justice education in student affairs. I suspect that some practitioners may already be doing so. However, I have not been unable to locate any student development literature that references the term “human rights” in more than a passing manner. I hope that this blog post can serve as a jumping-off point for dialogue about drawing connections between human rights and social justice education. What possibilities and limitations do you see for this kind of approach? How have you brought it to bear in your own work? I look forward to exploring these questions with you.

Brian Arao is the Associate Director for Staff and Programs in Student Housing and Residential Education at the University of San Francisco, where he is also a doctoral student. He has been a member of the directorate for the Commission for Social Justice Educators since 2006, and currently serves as its chairperson. Brian welcomes your feedback about this blog post and can be reached at brian.arao@gmail.com.


Davis, T. L., & Laker, J. A. (2004). Connecting men to academic and student affairs programs and services. New Directions for Student Services, 2004, 47–57. doi:10.1002/ss.132.

Edwards, K. E., & Jones, S. R. (2009). “Putting my man face on”: A grounded theory of college men’s gender identity development. Journal of College Student Development, 50(2), 210–228.

Harris III, F. (2010). College men’s meanings of masculinities and contextual influences: Toward a conceptual model. Journal of College Student Development, 51(3), 297–318. doi:10.1353/csd.0.0132.

Ignatieff, M. (2006). No exceptions? The United States pick-and-choose approach to human rights. In R. P. Claude & B. H. Weston (Eds.), Human rights in the world community: Issues and action (3rd ed., pp. 383–389). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Suarez, D. (2007). Education professionals and the construction of human rights education. Comparative Education Review, 51(1), 48–70. doi:10.1086/508638.

The World As It Could Be. (2010). Human rights education project curriculum and resource guide. San Francisco, CA: Rex Foundation.

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved October 28, 2011, from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.

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