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Our blueprint for a real society

19 May 2016

ADV Mohamed Ameermia

ON MAY 8 the whole country remembered with fond memories the day when the Consti­tutional Assembly, 20 years ago, adopted the Constitution, which would be the blueprint of our country.
However, as was noted by Cyril Ramaphosa who at the time was the chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly, "The real legacy of the Constitutional Assembly is not merely in the books that will be distributed, it lies in the growing awareness of what a Constitution means. I appeal to you all to nurture this, to claim the Constitution as your own. We have a Constitution we can be proud of, now let's make it work."

Thus, the Constitution is not self-executing but as was noted by our renowned Constitu­tional Court judge, justice Cameron, in his book Justice,.it requires "me, you and all of us to give it life".
How do we then give the Constitution life and prevent the expansive rights contained in the Bill of Rights from becoming hollow shib­boleths and atrophying?
We can only breathe life into the Consti­tution through undertaking various pro­grammes, which are geared to educating on human rights.

At an international level, the importance of human rights education (HRE) was rec­ognised by the UN leading it to declare 1995-2004 the Decade for Human Rights Edu­cation. The UN defines HRE as the "training, dissemination and information efforts aimed at the building of a universal culture of human rights through the imparting of knowledge and skills and the mouldfng of attitudes".
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cul­
tural Organisation (Unesco) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in its 2005 report, further defines HRE as
"education, training and information aimed at building a culture of human rights."
In other words, HRE is about raising awareness of human rights and promot-
ing a culture that encourages individuals to demand their own rights and to respect the rights of others. In essence, HRE realises that hwnan rights can only be achieved through ?,informed and continued demand by peopJe fir their protection.

The concept of HRE is increasingly being encompassed in a number of international and regional human rights instruments. In as much as these instruments outline positive state obligations on human rights educa- tion, they also form an important framework for national human rights institutions, civil society organisations and community-based organisations to work on HRE.
In order to give primacy to HRE, the UN General Assembly in 2011 adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, which reaffirms the HRE principles and standards of human rights treaties and acknowledges the fundamental importance of HRE to the realisation of all human rights.

To make HRE operable, the UN General Assembly adopted the World Programme for Human Rights Education (WPHRE III, 2015-2019).
The WPHRE is in its third phase and focuses on strengthening the implementation of the first two phases, which focused on HRE in the primary and secondary school systems and on HRE in higher education and human rights training of teachers & educators, civil servants, law enforcement officials and mili­tary personnel. respectively.
HRE provides the vehicle for us to know our rights. For individuals to claim their rights and to hold leaders accountable, they must be aware of these rights.
In the context of South Africa, HRE is important in the light of the expansive nature of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution as well as the transformative vision of our constitu­tional epoch, which is inextricably linked to an egalitarian vision, which aims to achieve equality and freedom in our society.

That is, given the fact that the Constitution endows people with a myriad of human rights, and seeks to repudiate the oppressive past and be a bridge to a culture of human rights, it is important for everyone to know their rights. It is illusory to have a Constitution which contains lofty ideals, when the people to whom these ideals apply to do not even know they are afforded those rights.
Such a scenario renders the Constitution a piece of paper with unattainable promises.
Therefore, there is a need for constitutional literacy and deeper engagement with the content of human rights if the people are to be able to actively partake in government.
To achieve this we need to redouble our efforts on HRE programmes to ensure
the realisation of human rights awareness towards creating and entrenching a culture of human rights in our country.

We also need to realise the importance
of synergy, coordination and cooperation between government, civil society organisa­tions, chapter 9 institutions and other rel­evant role players.
Going forward, the South African Human Rights Commission working with like-minded stakeholders will continue embarking on creative methods on strengthening HRE in the country.
Opportunities for strategic collaboration have been provided by international frame­works, which off er various sectors an oppor­tunity to engage in human rights education and training programmes.

For instance, there is an opportunity to come up with a Human Rights Education National Action Plan as well as a national HRE baseline survey to pave the way for stra­tegic planning as well as to initiate political dialogues with policy makers on HRE.
Our Constitution is only meaningful if peo­ple are aware of their rights and are free to exercise their rights. It is only when we have achieved this that we can say we have made the Constitution work.

Advocate Mohamed Ameermia is the SAHRC commissioner responsible for the right to Hous­ing and access to justice. This is an edited ver­sion of his speech delivered at the launch of the Casac Audit report on Human Rights Education in South Africa in Johannesburg.

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