Human rights: How do they matter for the profession of psychology?

Selected extracts from a new book, 'Human Rights Education for Psychologists' (Routledge, 2020). Here, Nora Sveaass and Michael Wessells give some background, and then Sarah Butchard, Tommy Dunne, Hilda Engel and Artemis Giotsa present 'stories of human rights'.

Here we present edited selections from two chapters in the new book Human Rights Education for Psychologists, edited by Polli HagenaarsMarlena PlavšićNora SveaassUlrich WagnerTony Wainwright, with kind permission from Routledge. FInd out more / buy the book here.


Although psychology and human rights are usually discussed as separate fields, we argue that human rights are at the core of the profession of psychology. Reviewing what may be considered as some of the basic ambitions, developments and focus areas in psychology, including ethical platforms for psychologists, we see that the obligations entailed in the international human rights conventions and declarations not only converge with what psychologists do and engage in, but also offer meaningful, ethical guidance for our profession.

In addition, of course, the human rights obligations specified in the conventions to which states are parties imply that these are reflected in national law, and as such, these are legally binding for us as a profession. We argue that our psychological practice ought to be informed not only by our theoretical and practical knowledge, background and professional ethics, but also by the principles of human rights, as set forth in fundamental instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). We will argue this, despite the fact that the science of psychology and the professions of psychology cover a wide range, and that the direct relevance to human rights may vary (Sveaass, 2019).

The human rights principles, laid down in conventions, covenants and protocols, frequently referred to as human rights instruments, will be briefly described in the following. These instruments are legally binding once states have ratified them, either as integrated or domesticated into national law, or as principles to which national authorities have committed themselves. Ratification further implies that states open up for international monitoring and evaluation of their compliance with the conventions by international bodies or committees specifically established to overview how states in fact implement and respect their human rights obligations in their country.

With this background, we will explore ways in which psychologists may engage in the promotion and protection of human rights, and contribute to the prevention of violations of such rights, as part of their regular professional activities. Bearing in mind that the central objectives within our profession are echoed in the aspirations of human rights principles, the connectedness and interrelatedness between the two fields become apparent. Examples are easily found among the tasks psychologists carry out on a daily basis, such as work for improving and ensuring human well being, strengthening communication and relations between people, empowering individuals and groups to be in charge of their lives, providing psychological assistance to cure or reduce distress and illness, securing the best possible conditions for children’s healthy development and protecting against violence and abuse. In line with this, psychologists must respect the principle of “doing no harm”. In other words, a substantive part of our professional work can be understood as reflecting both a psychological and a human rights perspective (Sveaass & Woolf, in press).

The relevance of our professional knowledge to human rights defence

The rich interconnections between psychology and human rights derive in part from psychologists’ specific knowledge and insights into human life, well-being and dignity. Through research, clinical studies and practical work, there is a substantial body of knowledge on psychological effects of life-threatening and potentially traumatic events (Bisson, 2007; Herman, 1992; Wilson, 2004). Many of the clients or patients we see in our everyday practice, both in peace time and in situations of conflict, are victims or survivors of serious traumatic events, such as rape, domestic violence, torture and ill-treatment and war-related hardships, that is, violence at the hands of officials or others abusing power or violence committed by private actors (Sveaass, 1994, 2017). With a growing number of refugees and asylum seekers seeking protection and shelter in other countries, the engagement by psychologists in this work is expanding all the time.
Based on professional experiences and available knowledge, psychologists have the skills and preconditions to deal professionally with survivors of many of these situations. In addition to providing therapy, psychologists may further work for improved and safer life conditions, either directly, or indirectly by raising awareness about destructive or unhealthy situations to those concerned with or responsible for such situations. In the same vein, a focus on prevention of violations and potential trauma represents an important area for psychologists. Prevention of violence against children, against abuses in hospitals and in places of detention, and working against trafficking in persons, are examples of engagement where there is the need to combine professional psychological work with human rights-oriented approaches (Sveaass, 2013, 2019).

Psychologists in different workplaces

Psychologists frequently work in settings where there may be risk of human rights violations, including ill-treatment or even torture. Examples are psychiatric hospitals where practices such as mechanical restraints, forced psychopharmacological treatment, involuntary hospitalization and other forms of questionable treatment are practised, not always in conformity with eithernational law or international standards. Psychologists furthermore work in military settings, in places of detention and in criminal justice settings, including prison services. In these and related settings, people in positions of power may deprive individuals of their liberty, conduct harsh investigations and employ punitive measures that go beyond what is permitted, legally as well as ethically. Despite the fact that these institutions in most countries are under formal state regulation and have a legal basis, reports from monitoring bodies (United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) and United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (UNSPT)), as well as from civil society organizations (e.g. Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch), frequently indicate that they are sites for violations of core human rights. These may include excessive use of force by police or prison guards, interrogation via abusive methods, use of isolation rooms or cells as disciplinary or protective measures and detention in overcrowded, inhumane conditions, often longer than regulated. Other violations may include detention for days before being brought before a judge, extended pre-trial detention and lack of basic legal safeguards, including access to health care professionals when deprived of liberty. Such violations happen in health care institutions as well as places of detention. Thus, institutions may develop practices that not only are in violation of national legal framework, but also violate human rights principles to which states have committed themselves. Psychologists may be involved, directly or indirectly, or they may be witnesses to or aware of such violations.

Important to ask is therefore: how do psychologists engage in such matters and what are psychologists’ moral obligations when they observe or learn about different kinds of abuse? The capacity to stop, protect against, whistle-blow or report on abuse and violation, whether these are intentional or consequences of rigid and unreflecting systems, depends on one’s insight and knowledge with regard to human rights and to what these mean in practice, as well as a willingness to take on the responsibility of openly defending rights. As will be discussed later in this chapter, this may also be a position involving tolls and risks.

Psychological insights and challenges

The science and profession of psychology contain knowledge and insight about human development and vulnerabilities, communication between persons and conditions that may allow for change to happen. This knowledge is highly constructive when applied ethically, but likewise destructive when applied in contexts where human rights abuses take place, or even worse, where psychological knowledge is intentionally applied in unacceptable ways and for purposes other than serving the good for people (Wessells, Sveaass, Foster & Dawes, 2017).

Psychologists have the skills to raise questions and look into matters of concern, and initiate systematic research into or mapping of possibly harmful practices or conditions. By doing this, professionals may contribute to the documentation of vio lations and practices such as solitary confinement, sleep deprivation or separations of children from their parents that are unacceptable to human rights standards as well as to standards of health and well-being.

Psychologists will, in most circumstances, be considered civil servants or public officials, or at least as professionals working on delegations of public officials. This includes private professional settings like institutions for children, private hospitals, centres for persons with disability or for elderly persons, that is, institutions that usually function on the basis of licence or approval by the state in which they func tion. As such these are bound by national law, and should be in conformity with the human rights conventions ratified by the state. When they are not inconformity with human rights conventions, psychologists should take action. One form of relevant action is advocacy guided by the intent to fulfil people’s human rights.

Psychologists and advocacy

Like others engaged in work with human beings, psychologists have a special responsibility to prevent, avoid, stop or report actions that may be or develop into prohibited acts, that is, torture or ill-treatment. Psychologists may be aware of situations where groups made vulnerable are able to voice needs and complaints. Psychologists who are informed about this in professional contexts must ensure that such concerns are raised, reported and reacted against through advo cacy. Psychologists must notify or report on, when considered necessary, condi tions that represent serious risks or cause harm to people, that run counter to health and development. In many countries, psychologists are obligated by law to report on harmful situations when these relate to children/minors at risk and/or in dire conditions.

As we see it, psychologists have the social position and power, through their professional background, placement and recognition, to comment, act upon or report on conditions that may jeopardize health, development and human rights. This also includes taking action and/or reporting on colleagues and other profes sionals who work in violation of ethical, professional and human rights stand ards. Psychologists are likewise bound by the ethical standards developed for their profession in the state where they work, and violations of such standards shall in principle result in sanctions from those in charge of monitoring and ensuring respect for the ethical standards. As will be further elaborated in the book, ethical norms usually cover professional behaviour and actions, whereas the obligation to ensure that rights are respected in the lives of our clients is less focused. Examples can be the right to just asylum procedures, that disability rights are fully respected and that persons are aware of and can enjoy their rights in different areas.

Having a human rights-based approach as psychologists thus implies having a thorough understanding of and, at the same time, a critical view on the legal regu lations, implementations and practices in the context where one works. Despite rati fication and state adherence to the human rights principles, a state’s legislation may fail to offer full protection against abuse or forms of violations. Likewise, there may be lack of awareness, skills and guidelines as to what should be done to live up to human rights obligations and standards. Examples of this may be imperfect imple mentation of laws protecting children against violation or exploitation, or lack of willingness to provide victim groups with their rights to rehabilitation or other ser vices. There may also be examples of states interpreting their obligations in ways that may counter the acceptable international standards. For instance, during the so-called “war against terror”, the Bush administration in the US attempted to redefine and reinterpret international human rights standards with regard to defin ition and prohibition of torture, presenting the view that it was “lawful” to torture detainees, and that “enhanced forms of interrogations” could be undertaken for the sake of preventing terror, despite these being assessed as forms of torture by national and international bodies (UNCAT, 2006).

Another example is the growing tendency for states to detain asylum seekers on the borders or fully deny them entry, and as such be in risk of blocking their right to seek protection as well as denial of liberty (Mink, 2019). Psychologists need to see that ethical reasoning and behaviour require more than adherence to the law and that human rights standards provide foundational bench marks and principles for defining what counts as ethical behaviour and treatment.

In conclusion, psychologists must, as professionals, respect and abide by inter national human rights standards and domestic laws, provided that these are in con formity with these standards. When there is a conflict between international rights and national law, there is a need to follow international human rights principles. This principle was laid down in the so-called Nuremberg principles, codified through United Nations General Assembly Resolution 177, November 21, 1947 (Nuremberg Principles, 1947). When there is lack of adherence to international human rights in domestic laws, this must be questioned and challenged, including by psychologists, as it may have serious repercussions for their practice. The state should be confronted with the fact that lack of implementation of ratified conventions is a violation of the obligations inherent in these instruments and mechanisms. Likewise, steps should be taken when cases are difficult to present to court because they are not sufficiently defined or typified in the national criminal law. Examples of unacceptable acts that may not be clearly defined as criminal in domestic legislation are marital rape, harmful traditional practices, slave-like working conditions for children or even torture.

At this point, in the book, we present an overview of international, regional and national mechanisms monitoring state compliance with human rights treaties and principles.

Psychologists’ involvement

As described above, the rights that should be protected and promoted include rights closely related to issues relevant to the practice and science of psychology. In the past, most psychologists had relatively low levels of engagement on human rights. We argue that this needs to change by having psychologists become active defenders of human rights. Psychologists should actively use the options that participation and engagement in the different mechanisms allow. This involves monitoring rights and promoting them in different ways, such as by engaging in the improvement of rights, and calling for better standards based on our knowledge of psychology. Finally, psychologists can contribute by ensuring that there is an understanding of mental health aspects in the protection of human rights. In the following, the term human rights defenders will be described as a way of engaging in human rights work, and as a position psychologists can take in this field.

Psychologists as human rights defenders

The first UN resolution on the situation for human rights defenders was adopted in the UN General Assembly in 1998 (UN, 1998) and soon after, the first high com missioner was appointed. “Human rights defenders” is a term referring to individ uals or groups engaged in the work of strengthening the protection and improving the implementation of human rights, usually as part of civil society movements and organizations. Human rights defenders engage with the whole range of human rights, in particular civil and political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights. For instance, the work to protect LGBTI rights has grown stronger over recent years. Similarly, the work to protect the rights of people to land and protect the environment represents areas of deep concern for a number of civil society organizations.

Today working as a human rights defender in general is becoming increasingly challenging, and human rights defenders are frequently targets of repression and reprisals, by states or groups working for states or by others such as hate groups. The problems facing many human rights defenders today are restrictive laws and limited space for action, with limited freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression and different forms of reprisals and threats. Threats to defenders and their family, smear campaigns, abuse, arbitrary arrests and detention, forced disappearance, torture and assassination are examples of this. This has called for action in many international contexts, including the UN. As a result, the UN Gen eral Assembly (most recently in November, 2017) has adopted several resolutions on state commitment to protect human rights defenders and prohibit and sanction violations against them. In addition, a number of guidelines and declarations have been issued in order to protect those who collaborate with human rights bodies by providing information and sharing experiences, and those actively engaged in defending the rights of others, such as the San Jose Guidelines (OHCHR, 2015).

Among persons who are at risk of threats and insecurity in their endeavours to deal with human rights abuses are health professionals, who work directly as care providers to persons who are victims of serious human rights abuses and/or in con flict with authorities. As professionalsengaged in protection of vulnerable groups or in advocacy on rights regarding health and life conditions, health professionals may risk being confronted with reprisals and persecution, marginalization and even detention.

There are many reasons for arguing that health professionals can be regarded as human rights defenders. Their obligations to detect, identify, document and report on abuses and serious violations of rights, and the challenges involved in directly dealing with consequences of such rights, may well be regarded as argu ments for supporting the view that psychologists should be human rights defenders. This of course is the subject for discussions and elaborations and implies the need for training in human rights as well as strategies to ensure safety and safeguards.

There are many examples worldwide of psychologists engaging in professional psychology work that in fact represents human rights defence and protection (Kordon et al., 1988; Lira, 2010). One such example is the work of Latin American psychologists and health professionals in their assistance for victims of torture, of disappearance and other serious violations, while at the same time working against oppression and impunity (Kordon et al., 1992; Rojas, 2000). Psychologists in South Africa fighting apartheid, both in direct clinical work and in writing, is a good example of such engagement, as well as doctors fighting torture and abuses against political opponents and even groups of people, such as those in Turkey, now risking imprisonment (HRFT, 2019). 

Engaging in violations

We have argued that psychologists should aspire to see themselves as a form of human rights defenders. At the same time, there is a need to stress that psychologists should never engage in acts that may seriously violate the rights of others, whether directly, or by providing knowledge and insight to those who abuse rights or by failure to protest and intervene when rights are violated and finally, by condoning or accepting different forms of abuse. Above we mentioned examples of psychologists and other health professionals’ involvement in human rights defence. There are unfortunately abundant examples of psychologists and health professionals engaging in serious violations of rights, such as doctors par ticipating in torture or issuing false death or birth certificates, of psychiatrists participating in hospitalizing dissidents in the Soviet Union (Stover & Nightin gale, 1985) or South African psychologists providing “scientific” support for apartheid (Foster, 1990). Of more recent date is the involvement of US psychologists in developing methods of enhanced interrogation of terror suspects, and the American Psychological Association (APA) encouraging psychologists’ participa tion in national security activities, even in places outside international law (black sites) (Wessells et al., 2017).

It is of vital importance that psychologists are aware of the danger involved in engaging in actions regarded as serious human rights violations, either as intentional and direct, or as the result of lack of due diligence and prevention. Ethical practice and ethical training must go together with a clear focus on human rights, the provisions therein and the need for a clear perspective on prevention of human rights abuses.

Concluding remarks

The relationship between human rights and ethics is a close one and both sets of principles provide important guidelines for good psychological practice. The chal lenges that psychologists may face in a number of professional situations create the need for ongoing discussions among us with regard to ways of dealing with dilemmas, conflicting rights, situations related to lack of independence in our professional roles and expectations that may create serious burdens and difficulties with regard to action and reaction. Nevertheless, there is a need to develop strategies, models and good thinking in relation to the role of psychologists in the defence of human rights defenders, about how we can best participate in the process of ensuring that rights are in fact enjoyed, and that abuses, injustice and other forms of harm are dealt with.

Through the many chapters in this book, the numerous situations and contexts in which psychologists work and engage will be outlined and discussed, and the human rights challenges involved will be presented. Whereas knowledge and insight in human rights standards will always be a must here, a sense of professional collab oration and mutual support combined with a willingness to engage are likewise highly important for this to be possible. This requires that the associations of psych ologists take up these issues for further elaboration and develop ways of realizing ideals and aspirations entailed in human rights, ensuring that psychologists approach the challenges involved in a human rights-oriented and informed profes sional position in the best possible way, and do so together.


Stories of human rights

Teaching and learning

Sarah Butchard, Tommy Dunne, Hilda Engel and Artemis Giotsa

The final chapter of the book has contributions from four people. Firstly, from the UK we have Sarah Butchard’s story. She is a clinical psychologist who has worked on human rights in clinical settings and explored how best they can be deployed to help those who are at risk of having their needs not met, or their rights violated. She has worked alongside Tommy Dunne, who lives with dementia, and is part of a group   who have developed some wonderful online videos of their experiences (https:// Tommy gives an account of what it means to him to have learned about human rights and how they can help him and others in his situation.

Then we have Hilda Engel, a tireless worker for human rights in The Netherlands, who describes the inspiring work they have been doing with young people so that they learn about the relevanceof human rights in their own lives and in the lives of other people.

The final story, by Artemis Giotsa, is from Greece, where Artemis, as psychologist and professor at the university, has witnessed in recent times many people coming to the aid of those fleeing from persecution and conflict and how human rights has been a key way of understanding what needs to be done. The financial crisis was also witness to human rights violations on a wide scale. We hope you will think about these stories and relate them to your own lives and what your own story is.

Personal reflections on delivering human rights training

Sarah Butchard

Human rights are the foundation of everything I, as a clinical psychologist, do and believe in. Every day I encounter people who have directly had their human rights violated, or are at risk of this happening: people who are detained against their wishes, those who are deemed as not being able to make decisions for themselves, those who have experienced psychological or physical trauma and those who are excluded by society. There are often moral, legal and societal considerations as to why these people have had their human rights infringed, but it does not detract from the fact this violation has taken place. To forget this fact brings with it the risk of accepting increasingly more restrictions on human rights without question.

The underlying assumptions of both applied psychological practice and human rights-based approaches are closely aligned. For psychologists, issues of human rights should not be only abstract concepts but reflect formalised systems for ensuring that people’s basic needs are satisfied. I don’t think anyone would disagree that we should protect those most vulnerable in our society whether that be due to age, capacity or diagnosis and yet human rights violations still occur – why?

Despite the recognition of the overlap between human rights-based approaches (HRBA) and high-quality clinical practice it can, on occasion, feel like the task-driven, bureaucratic approaches to health care delivery are in direct opposition to HRBA, which compel us to work in ways which value each person’s individuality. It has been asserted that:

As service delivery changes, it has never been more important that clinical psychologists and other health professionals have the courage, tenacity, and moral compass to identify, influence, and defend the human rights of those we serve and those we work alongside.

(Butchard et al., 2015, p. 9)

For me it is therefore abundantly clear that equipping health care professionals with the knowledge, skills and confidence to work within an HRBA is a priority.

For me a primary aim of any human rights training programme delivered to col leagues working in health and social care settings is ensuring that the applicability of the principles to the day-to-day work they undertake is clear. Taken in isolation the Human Rights Act can feel like a detached, unwieldy legal document but an HRBA to care provides a translation from law to clinical practice. However, it has been said that “Issues of human rights are not abstract, legal, provisions, but reflect formalised systems for ensuring that people’s basic needs are satisfied” (Tai et al., 2009, p. 25). They operationalise ways of interacting with people we support that will uphold and promote their humanrights.

My personal experience of delivering human rights training has been to clinical psychology trainees and to staff in dementia care homes  and inpatient wards. When I initially embarked on training others in human rights I approached the work with some trepidation. The training delivered to trainee clinical psychologists was in the form of enquiry-based learning and was based on a manual developed for this pur pose. It felt vital that individuals training to work with some of the most vulnerable people in society could fully engage with the importance  of not only ensuring human rights are not violated but actively promoting the rights of those who may struggle to do this for themselves. I was concerned that there may be resistance to facing how clinical psychology can play a role in undermining human rights on occasions, as it can feel threatening to face your own limitations, particularly when you are just entering a profession, and when you see your primary goal as supporting people. It seemed imperative however to acknowledge that both human rights and the protection of them are everybody’s responsibility and some common practices can cause potential harm. I was impressed by the level of reflection that these issues were greeted with.

When considering staff working on dementia inpatient wards or in care homes I worried about how the training would be received: whether staff, who were already stretched to capacity, would see this as another system designed to monitor them against standards, which they felt that they could never live up to. Would it feel threatening, with people fearing that the motivation was to uncover poor practice and punish it? I was aware that staff in these settings often felt undervalued and I wanted to ensure that any training provided acted as a way to empower them as opposed to making them even more disenfranchised. In essence I wanted to pro mote their rights in the training as well.

However, on all occasions I was pleasantly surprised by the response to human rights training. It was received with openness, honesty and a level of self-awareness that was refreshing to see. Those involved in the training commented that it provided them with frameworks to legitimise their actions, which they instinctively thought were correct, but for which they found a rationale difficult to articulate. At a period when there are unprecedented pressures on time and resources, staff reported that an HRBA gave them the legal “backbone” to stand firm on issues that they felt were morally imperative. And for me this highlights the true benefits of training health care staff in HRBA. For, by increasing their  knowledge, awareness and passion for upholding the human rights of others, you also unleash in them a desire to claim their own human rights, including the right to support others in a way that is congruent with their moral and ethical codes, with the backing of the law. I am hopeful that this could result in not only a more highly skilled workforce who feel supported in working in ethical ways but better outcomes for those they support.


Butchard, S., Cameron, A., Donald, A., Dowling, C., Forde, E., Eames, C., … Roberts,  B.  (2015). Human rights in clinical psychology: Enquiry based learning resources for training clinical psychologists in human rights decision-making, leadership and evaluation. Retrieved

Butchard, S., & Greenhill, B. (2015). Human rights: Giving clinical psychology a backbone. Clinical Psychology Forum276, 16–22.

Kahn, P., & O’Rourke, K. (2005). Understanding enquiry-based learning. In Handbook of enquiry and problem-based learning: Irish case studies and international perspectives. Galway: Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, NUI Galway. Retrieved from

Kinderman, P. (2007). Human rights and applied psychology. Journal of Community Applied Social Psychology17(3), 218–228.

Tai, S., Kinderman, P., Choudray, S., Gillmer, B., Gwilliam, P., Hanna, J., … Taylor, J. (2009). Psychological health and well-being: A new ethos and a new service structure for mental health. A report of the working group on psychological health and well-being. Leicester: British Psychological Society.


Human rights apply to everyone

Tommy Dunne

Surely human rights only apply to other people? People without the legal protections that we have in this country. How could human rights even be considered to apply to people living with dementia? Yet people living with dementia are the most devalued in our society: the ones who get hit with the double stigma of old age and cognitive impairment, people whose human rights have been disregarded as society places emphasis on intact cognition. While a diagnosis of dementia is often necessary for people to access the appropriate care and support services required to main tain their mental and physical well-being, receiving the diagnosis of dementia unfortunately frequently leads to us being denied our human rights both in the com munity and in care homes. It is well publicised that people living with dementia can face discrimination and treatment that contravenes their human rights for three key reasons:
The stigma and discrimination associated with the condition
Lack of capacity to challenge and report incidents that occur.

Just because I’ve been diagnosed with dementia should not exclude me from being involved in decisions about my care. Having dementia does not stop me from being a human being. A lot of my peers, myself included, fear being mistreated and abused just because we have dementia. Some of those who will be looking after us in care will not see us as intelligent people with an illness; all they will see is the dementia, that they think gives them the right to treat us how they think fit and not as a person who has human rights.

But human rights compel you to treat people living with dementia as human beings and failure to take our human rights into account can also lead to legal suits which impose an additional financial burden and undermine public confidence in services.

It is only now that dementia is being recognised as a disability and, just as importantly, that dementia is increasingly being viewed as having a rights-based dimension.

People must never forget that human rights guarantee people living with dementia the means necessary to satisfy their basic needs, such as food and housing, so they can take full advantage of all opportunities. By guaranteeing life, liberty, equality and secur ity, human rights protect people against abuse by those who are more powerful.

When we talk about those who are more powerful, we are not just talking about the government; it could be a care home, or even a carer.

So when my peers and myself were given the opportunity by Dr Sarah Butchard from Mossley Hill Hospital to make a series of short films on the FREIDA (fairness, respect, equality, identity, dignity and autonomy) principles, I was over the moon. Here at last was a chance to show people what our human rights mean to us as people living with dementia.

But how was I going to get over in a two-minute film what something so important as my rights were? How could I show people that I am not invisible, that I’m still an intelligent person who has the same rights as them?

I’m a great believer in the only way to get people to understand what it’s like to live with dementia is for people living with dementia to tell them what it’s like. Likewise it is better if people living with dementia explain their human rights.

What better way to influence and educate people than to hear it directly from people who are experiencing it every minute of every day and also for our fellow peers to see it explained in a simple way which I’m sure will inspire them as much as the films inspired me?

When I first told people that my peers and myself were making a series of short films about human rights, I was shocked at some of the responses, such as: “Human rights? You don’t live in a third-world country” or “Your carers will look after those for you; you don’t need to be bothered about those”.

How can we expect people to understand dementia unless they have been edu cated by the people who are living with it?

I think that the films we have made will be of great benefit to show at post- diagnostic groups, at the time when you are at your lowest and fear for your future. I wish I had seen films like these when I was first diagnosed as they would have given me hope, because hope is the one thingthat we need most to get us through every day.

The films should be shown in every care home and hospital as well as to general practitioners. The only way we can beat the stigma of dementia is by showing that those living with it have the same rights as those who don’t.

I sometimes look at the films to remind me that I’m still here and that I do have rights.


Human rights “in practice”

Hilda Engel

I am a member of the Soroptimists in The Netherlands, an organisation that is part of the Soroptimist International organisation ( We are working women whose aim is to improve the lives of women and children around the world.

We decided we would like to help youngsters to become more interested in human rights. After a good deal of thought and discussion and for that reason, we came up with the idea of an award – the so-called “Golden STEM” (Soroptimist Trophy Education huMan rights); stem meaning voice, specifically developed for students aged 12–16, in what we call in The Netherlands, VMBO (Technical Secondary Education). We decided to focus on this level of education as these students are not awarded many prizes for their efforts and we thought they deserve more.

To our great luck, we found two schools willing to participate in this project and still more lucky to meet a very enthusiastic director (of both schools) and an even more inspired teacher of social studies. The project during the “pilot” consisted of three units: A, B and C within one lesson block of social studies.

The first of these classes (A) are required for all students and part of the final school examinations whereas parts B and C are optional. Each group of two to three students could choose to focus on learning about one of the following “Children’s Rights”:

  • The right to equal treatment
  • The right to be a person
  • The right to a private opinion and public participation
  • The right to privacy
  • The right to security and protection.

After some brainstorming sessions with the teacher, we decided these introductory lessons would not follow an overly legal approach, as the kids wouldn’t be interested in it very much, but to concentrate on these rights and how they might affect them in day-to-day life. In other parts of the course, in part B the kids are involved in devising a charity action of some sort in The Netherlands or in a foreign country, and for part C they would present their charity work and its results.

The competition for the award involved the teacher selecting about five groups of students to show their presentation during a festive meeting in front of their class mates, teachers, parents and other interested people. Thereafter, a jury of persons from diverse backgrounds, including psychologists, evaluated the presentations and announced the winners of the trophy.

It really was impressive and sometimes even moving to see how these relatively poorly educated youngsters, normally more interested in themselves or their direct surroundings, had  plunged  into  their  projects  and  had  very  creatively  invented   a charity action for it!

The charity ideas included: providing more possibilities for disabled people within football clubs in The Netherlands; the famine in Yemen; the poor conditions of edu cation due to the crisis in Venezuela; and the “scandalous  punishment” (their  words) of the Iranian human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh ( get-involved/take-action/iran-free-nasrin-satoudeh-now/). The actions that were asso ciated with theseideas were just as diverse and creative.

The trophy was won by a project to help kids who were not getting a good edu cation in Venezuela and they used the award of €250 to organise boat trips in the harbour of IJmuiden (where the biggest lock in Europe is being built). This money  was a welcome start for this “enterprise”. The money they  raise  with  these  boat  trips will be used for the goal mentioned above, support of children’s education in Venezuela.

But at least as meaningful for the result of this project is the statement of the teacher: “thanks to this human rights project I could get ‘society’ into the class room”. The kids found it very exciting and the teachers and we, the members of the Soroptimists, found it inspiring and we all learned a lot about human rights along the way.

We, Haarlem Soroptimists, are able to look back on a successful first award of this trophy and are willing to expand gradually the amount of participating schools and to make their experiences available to other Soroptimist clubs in the country.

Teaching human rights in education

Artemis Giotsa

As a professor in social psychology at the Faculty of Education (University of Ioannina in Greece), I strive to engage, challenge and inspire growth in my students. It is my belief that every student is capable of tasting the passion that I feel for psychology. During the financial crisis in Greece over the last ten years, many human rights violations occurred. Consequently, it is important to integrate human rights teaching in the curriculum of our department. Many students are  interested  in  human rights issues, such as children trafficking, LGBTIQ+ issues, children’s rights, women’s rights and vulnerable population rights (e.g. prisoners). The focus is to help students learn about human rights and then to become collaborators in the exploration of human rights theory, research and practice.

The course entitled “Human  Rights  and  Education”  is  interdisciplinary  and covers topics from different areas on human rights: human rights and teachers, human rights and psychology, human rights and children, human rights and elderly people, human rights and arts.

The aim of the course is to familiarise participants with the basic concepts of human rights, showing them how to defend them at the micro and macro level, thinking in systems terms. More specifically, students are trained in how they can incorporate into their teaching as future teachers declarations of human rights  and the United Nations sustainable development goals with a view to helping children develop more sensitivity towards social inequalities, to eliminate prejudices and discrimination.

Participants have the opportunity to become familiar with a wide range of inter disciplinary theoretical approaches derived from psychology, educational, socio logical, special education, sports, and health education.

The first area of teaching is based on the study and analysis of different declar ations of human rights. We present the declarations of human rights and then there is a critical and fruitful conversation about which countries’ human rights declar ations are being followed and which are not. This is also connected  with the cultural context and we focus also on the  possible  contradictions, such as that  countries with a high level of knowledge do not respect human rights.

In order to engage my students, I try to use vivid examples of psychological phe nomena, especially from the real world, to draw them into the thick of the learning experience. I prefer to teach through demonstrations: by conducting mini- experiments in human rights and analysing data in the classroom, by participating in brainstorming, small-group debates, role-playing, by observing behaviours from “the real world” and by discussing case studies of violations of human rights emerging from different systems such as social, professional, educational andfamily.

Moreover, I encourage my students to ask questions and to discuss  in  small  groups. Above all else, I challenge my students to understand that I am always open to their thoughts, eager to hear their opinions and thrilled to learn with and through them.

Another primary goal is to incorporate research into teaching. I am able to help students connect course content on human rights with the ongoing process  of research and as a result I have had several of my students go on to work in my lab. We have developed in the department of pre-school education a lab based on “Human Rights and Interpersonal Relationships”. We focus on the promotion and protection of human rights  in society. To further foster an appreciation  for research I encourage students to attend talks, conferences and congresses at national and international levels. I also invite students to participate in the piloting of my studies so that they can experience the research process first-hand. One of the greatest goals I have is to teach my students to become motivated, insightful and enthusiastic thinkers. I try also to introduce human rights in other courses of psychology such as social psychology; cross-cultural psychology; study of values; interpersonal relation ships; and social representations.

After completing the course on “Human Rights and Education”, students  will be  able to: 

  • Recognise the international conventions of human rights
  • Interpret concepts of human rights related to education
  • Apply methods of advocacy and prevention of human rights
  • Collaborate with other scientists and experts for the protection of human rights. 

Teaching my students the topic of human rights pushes me every day to interact and to collaborate with young people, to inspire them and to be inspired.



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