Graphic Human Rights Education Project

Why a graphic human rights education project?

The world recently commemorated the 70th anniversary of the iconic 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This celebration, however, was tempered coming as it did in the shadow of an unprecedented assault on the very concept of human rights, as understood in the post-World War Two context. In part due to concerns over the effects of globalization, increasing inequality and immigration, a surge of authoritarian populists in the global north and south have been elected on platforms of demonizing minorities, attacking human rights principles, fuelling distrust of democratic institutions and eroding multilateralism. If left unchecked, this trend could undermine decades of progress on the common values of inclusivity, tolerance, and respect that lie at the heart of human rights. It has been argued that the human rights movement, like the world it monitors, is in crisis.

As the debate rages around the relevance of human rights in the 21st century, the GHP will address, head on, the current crisis of human rights as a graphic history aimed at a global demographic of 13 to 23-year-olds, including human rights activists, high school students and other youth demographics, as well as at enlightened globalists and academic and human rights advocates.

The book be the centre piece of a new innovative and targeted global Human Rights Education (HRE) programme, as outlined in this proposal. Indeed this project seeks to specifically support the on-going World Programme for Human Rights Education (WPHRE) declared by the UN General Assembly (GA Resolution 48/141) which seeks to advance the implementation of human rights education programmes globally.

Why cartoons?

As has been noted, comics and graphic narratives, a form long under recognized by mainstream publishers and academic institutions alike, have in recent years began to receive the critical attention they deserve. Although the use of comics to tell a story extends back centuries, inspired by works of recently canonized comics artists such as Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco, comics are now deployed across a range of genres tackling more issues and contexts than ever. Since the publication of Maus in 1980, comics and graphic narratives have melded a dizzying array of different artistic and literary techniques addressing critical humanitarian, social and political issues whether through comic journalistic non-fiction, travelogue, autobiographies or crime narratives.

Graphic novel are also increasingly being used in both formal and non-formal education settings. By far, the most frequently mentioned asset of comics as an educational tool is its ability to motivate students. In one experiment with a curriculum built around comics 74% of teachers surveyed found it “helpful for motivation”, while 79% claimed it “increased individual participation”. One teacher even complained that comic books made “learning too easy”.

Clearly, the other four identified strengths of comics – namely that comics are visual, permanent, intermediary, and popular – mean they can be harnessed in practically any subject and at practically any grade level. Many innovative education projects have already done so with much success.

Although comics and graphic novels have predominantly been used in school literature classes, they can also scaffold to disciplines and concepts outside of the language arts. For example, Jay Hosler’s Sandwalk Adventures, a comic book starring Charles Darwin and a talking follicle mite, introduces readers to evolutionary biology (Eakin, 2002). The syllabi of many history courses already include the aforementioned Maus (Kendricks, 2000). Beyond specific works, the very act of creating comics is an interdisciplinary activity. In addition to reading and writing, comics-based projects can develop drawing, computer, and research skills. Many of the skills used in comics creation can be applied to film-making, illustration, and even Web design (Sturm, 2002).

The Book

The book will be approximately 200 pages long and will include high quality photographs, cartoons and/or illustrations on every page. It will seek to, in an amusing and often irreverent way, trace the complex intellectual history of human rights and chronicle the clash over the last 3,000 years of social movements, ideas, and armies that have played a part in its struggle. The book will seek to illustrate, above all, no matter how dire the situation might be at any given time, the human rights movement has always evolved and progressed from one era to another, albeit in fits and starts.

The book will show how the lessons and experiences of the past can help activists achieve victories today over the array of adversaries of human rights: from predatory economic actors to abusers of great power to murderous regimes to despotic fundamentalist movements of all ideological stripes. The book’s narrative then will argue it is still possible to overcome the Manichean divisions that characterize the current human rights crisis including the struggle between globalists and anti-globalists and between market fundamentalists and cultural (religious) fundamentalists.

Each of the six chapters, addressing six distinct eras from ancient times to today, will conclude with a discussion of those who, despite the progress of rights in any given period, were still excluded from claiming those rights morally and legally. As the narrative unfolds, however, we will see how those who were denied rights in one historical period were able to claim them in the next. This is the case because, albeit slowly, the history of human rights shows clear progress. The book and the proposed human rights education programme will also seek to address thorny and thought-provoking questions that have shaped human rights debate and scholarship including:

  • • Are human rights Western impositions or universal values?
  • • Why did the European vision of human rights triumph?
  • • Does globalization advance or undermine human rights?
  • • Do human rights originate in or constrain religion?
  • • Has socialism made a lasting contribution to the legacy of human rights?
  • • Did the anti-colonial movement respond to repression or simply shift its source?
  • • Must human rights be sacrificed to national security?
  • • Is there, in fact, a future of human rights in today’s world?

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