Protesters under Trojan Horse. Ted Lipien/Flickr

The “global human rights education project” is a collective term for a worldwide rights-advocacy campaign through both formal and non-formal education channels. Amnesty International (AI), a major actor in human rights education (HRE), describes HRE on its website ) as  “a deliberate, participatory practice aimed at empowering individuals, groups and communities through fostering knowledge, skills and attitudes consistent with internationally recognized human rights principles.”

Sounds innocuous – laudable, even – until one takes a long, hard look at how it defines and applies those ‘principles’.

The legal basis for “universal” human rights is fragmented and weak. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, being UN General Assembly resolutions, have no legal force. Most international human rights treaties are toothless tigers. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is non-judiciable. The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women is hamstrung by the numerous reservations nation-states entered (those who signed up at all).

This list can be added to at leisure. Unless incorporated into domestic law, “universal” human rights are more in the realm of whims than hard law.

HRE crusaders nonetheless doggedly pursue their global agenda. The manner in which they play fast and loose with international law will be illustrated using same-sex marriage.

Upon entering the Amnesty International UK website’s HRE resources page, one encounters a set of dialogue boxes with the phrases “I am a teacher” [looking for] “Teaching resources”  pre-filled in. Upon proceeding, a list of resources appears headed by an “LGBTI Activity Pack” the stated aim of which is to “enable teachers to explore the human rights of sexual and gender  minority groups with children and young people.”

The first activity involves 5- to 8-year-olds coming to the realisation that a family may have two Dads or two Mums. The activity pack boldly asserts that “International law recognises that sexual orientation and gender identity are integral to every person’s identity and humanity”. A perusal of other resources reveals an older LBGT rights activity guide that specifically mentions same-sex marriage and a “simplified” version of the UDHR that audaciously simplifies Article 16 to read “Every grown up [sic] has the right to marry and have a family if they [sic] want to.”

The AI position on SSM is succinctly put by AI (USA) as follows:

The right of adults to enter into consensual marriage is enshrined in international human rights standards.

Article 16, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):

Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

For more than a decade, this non-discrimination principle has been interpreted by UN treaty bodies and numerous inter-governmental human rights bodies as prohibiting discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. Non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation has therefore become an internationally recognized principle and many countries have responded by bringing their domestic laws into line with this principle …

Indeed, the compound right to marry and found a family is encountered in a number of international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The family in human rights conventions is mostly defined as the “natural” base unit of society. It is clearly the case that these authoritative sources envisage marriage as occurring between persons who form an inherently fertile unit that is capable of producing a natural family, ie, a man and a woman.

This view was shared by the UN Human Rights Committee in Joslin v New Zealand  2002 and by the European Court of Human Rights in Schalk and Kopf v Austria  2010.  In Gas and Dubois v France 2012, the Court held that “the Convention does not impose an obligation on the governments of the Contracting States to grant same-sex couples access to marriage”.

The AI position statement quoted above homes in on the principle of non-discrimination which it appears to regard as a peremptory norm. In reality, ‘sexual orientation’ issues in general have not been at all enthusiastically pursued at the international level – rather the opposite. 2011 saw a UN General Assembly split over LGBT rights. This is hardly surprising given that, despite changes in social attitudes in Western societies over the past decades, numerous countries continue to criminalise homosexuality, with some continuing to invoke the death penalty.

AI’s confident assertion that “Non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation has therefore become an internationally recognized principle” is, at best, wishful thinking; at worst, a deliberate misrepresentation.

The appeal to non-discrimination as a basis for demanding a right to SSM in the context of international law begs the question that restricting marriage to “hetero” couples is discriminatory. The right to marry has never been unqualified, consanguinity restrictions representing a ubiquitous example of conditions that may be imposed. Given the explicit heteronormativity of international human rights law in its view of marriage and its functions, restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples does not constitute unlawful discrimination. It would appear that the UN Human Rights Committee and the European Court of Human Rights agree.

Human rights education is, by its own criteria, largely a form of social activism. It is one of the tentacles of a worldwide ideological movement that has been remarkably successful in infiltrating Western education systems and influencing educational policies and practices, including curricula.

Typical of ideological movements, it operates with missionary zeal, its operatives spurred on by the perceived rightness of their cause. Its proponents cite documentary authorities with the same absolutism as that with which the religious fundamentalist cites scripture – and in so doing may impose an interpretation that is far from self-evident to the detached analyst and may even be at odds with the purport thereof.

I am not “against human rights” or “against human rights education”. On the contrary, I am an active advocate of law education in schools  from primary school level up, and consider rights to be an important aspect of such a programme. What do concern me is the harnessing of human rights education to a social engineering agenda and the receptivity of some education authorities to the Trojan Horse that is HRE. If there is to be HRE in schools, it should be as part of a holistic law education programme devised and delivered by professionals with academic qualifications in law – not by often barely legally literate social-activist zealots doubling as educators.

This article is a condensed version of my paper ‘The Shaky Legal Foundations of the Global Human Rights Education Project’ that recently appeared in the Journal of International Social Studies. If this link does not work for you, email me ( ) and I will send you a .pdf file containing the paper.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek  BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is Associate Professor of Education at the American University of Beirut.