SSF Interview Series with Mark Frezzo

Shulamith Koenig

On behalf of Sociologists without Borders (SSF), Mark Frezzo interviewed Shula Koenig—founder and president of PDHRE, the People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning and recipient of the 2003 United Nations Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Field of Human Rights. Designed to develop and advance pedagogies for human rights learning and dialogue relevant to people’s daily lives in the context of their struggles for social and economic justice, societal development and democracy,” PDHRE includes activists, community organizers, NGO representatives, UN officials, and scholars (PDHRE). Upon establishing PDHRE in 1988, Ms. Koenig worked with the UN Human Rights Center and the UN Commission on Human Rights, participated in the Vienna Human Rights Conference in 1993, and pushed tirelessly for the UN Decade of Human Rights Education (1994-2004). In recent years, Ms. Koenig and PDHRE have pursued the Human Rights Cities Program. Emphasizing popular participation in decision-making, a human rights city isa community based on equality and nondiscrimination.

Frezzo: Let’s begin with a few reflections on your work as a human rights educator. Interestingly enough, your writings and lectures reflect a taste for religious imagery. For example, you often use the term “evangelist” to characterize your role as an advocate of human rights. In addition, you often allude to the Bible and other sacred texts in demonstrating that the concept of human rights is rooted in a sense of dignity. Finally, in a manner characteristic of a “secular religion,” you offer a totalizing vision of human rights that encompasses morality, law, politics, social life, and culture. In a way, your reference to religion has the effect of de-emphasizing the role of the European Enlightenment in codifying and propagating human rights. Tell us more about your vision of human rights.

Koenig: As the psychologist Alfred Adler established, human culture is rooted in the desire for dignity and belonging. Notwithstanding their contributions to the canon of human rights and their occasional appeals to universality, the world’s major religions are by definition exclusionary. They impose conditions of belonging on their adherents. In contrast, the political ideology of human rights is intrinsically and irreducibly inclusive. By definition, all people are included in the framework of human rights. Since I was trained as an engineer and worked on water distribution and irrigation , I like water-related allegories. Human rights can be seen as the banks of a river. Life flows freely between the banks. In times of flooding, as the water levels rise, people strengthen the banks to protect themselves.

Frezzo: The image of levies as concretized human rights is especially poignant in light of the humanitarian disaster in New Orleans in 2005. In revealing the total erosion of the social compact, along with enduring inequalities of race, class, and gender, the disaster in New Orleans had the effect of inspiring sociologists to “go public,” so to speak, with their advocacy of human rights. Perhaps this will lead to greater collaboration among scholars, NGOs, movements, and community groups. This points to the mission of PDHRE—namely, the promotion of human rights education. What are the major principles of human rights education?

Koenig: In actuality, I prefer the term “learning” because it suggests an active participatory position, whereas the term “education” often suggests a passive one. In my work with PDHRE, I operate from the following premise: although all people are bearers of human rights, many people are not aware of their human rights. Thus, the purpose of PDHRE is to facilitate program that enables people to be aware of their human rights and own them as a powerful too for action. This has the effect of mobilizing people to empower themselves guided by the holisitic human rights framework..

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