Education as Freedom

The following commentary is adapted from an editorial in the May edition of the Education Brief – a monthly update on The Hague Institute’s work as well as a snapshot of activities and publications in this important field. The commentary reflects on the emphasis during the recent ‘Roosevelt in The Hague’ event that was placed on the role of education in realizing the Four Freedoms. 

On 22 April, The Hague Institute for Global Justice and the Roosevelt Foundation together organized for the first time the event, ‘Roosevelt in The Hague,´ which took place at the Peace Palace and the institute. Following the Four Freedoms Awards ceremony in Middleburg, the event provided a unique opportunity for the laureates to share their insights and to reflect on the persistent challenges to the Four Freedoms: of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear.

The awards are inspired by US President Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union message to Congress on 6 January, 1941. In this speech, President Roosevelt stated that the US involvement in World War II was to fight for the four universal freedoms that belonged to all people. These freedoms were then included in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), as the highest aspiration of the common people.

Today, the Four Freedoms continue to prove relevant given the immense challenges to realizing peace, justice and human rights worldwide. The current European refugee crisis, the emergence and persistence of violent conflict, the impact and suffering caused by terrorism, and the rise of violent extremism demonstrate the important and urgent need for the Four Freedoms. The discussions in The Hague identified education both as an end in itself and as a means to achieving each of the Four Freedoms.

While all four are important today, the Freedom of Fear emerged as the most critical. In his 1941 speech, President Roosevelt defined the freedom from fear as “a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour—anywhere in the world”. Representing Human Rights Watch – one of the laureates – Deputy Director, Bruno Stagno-Ugarte, emphasized that, “fear stands behind many of the human rights developments of our time”. While this includes the fear of being killed or maimed, imprisoned or tortured, Stagno-Ugarte asserted that it also included fear of the consequences of refugees in many Europeans countries, the fear of more terrorist attacks that has led to the stigmatization and discrimination of Muslims, and the fear of accountability that has led many autocrats to harden their regimes.

Education is not a panacea to the causes and impact of fear. In some cases, it has been used to promote violence. Nevertheless, education provides a unique contribution to mitigating and transforming the causes of violence, as recognized by the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. In war-torn contexts, there is growing evidence to demonstrate that schools in the short-term can provide zones of safety and stability. Through support over time, schools and non-formal education can promote the respect for human rights, enable more inclusive societies and strengthen social cohesion. At the same time, reducing fear ultimately requires international political will for reform and economic support, especially in linking competencies and skills to employment opportunities.

To address the second part of Stagno-Ugarte’s comments, we cannot be complacent about education, even in relatively stable contexts. It certainly has a role to play in transforming the European response to the current plight of refugees. In this sense, there is a need to improve technical knowledge on the rights of refugees in international law at all levels of society. More profoundly, it is through education that we can begin to reconstruct, especially for the next generation, the cornerstone European principles of human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Member states, regardless of their democratic tradition, have proven in recent years that they are not immune from hate speech and other forms of propaganda that promote hostility and violence or from curtailing free speech among other civil liberties. In finding effective responses, the 2015 Paris Declaration highlighted the specific role of education through citizenship in protecting skills, building abilities and enabling critical thinking.

Violent conflict has changed in many ways since the introduction of the Four Freedoms. Nevertheless, it continues to be shaped by a willingness and capacity to escalate and de-escalate tensions, as Roosevelt encapsulated in 1941. Fear, and in particular the politics of fear, remains a driver of these dynamics. While educated people are not immune from violence, education enables at least some to counter fear, challenge polarized debates, and transcend the narrow confines of politics. Sometimes this requires new ideas but in an era of weak international consensus, distrust and indirection, the Four Freedoms invite us to recognize and adhere to a set of minimum universal standards. In using the Four Freedoms as a lens, we may be able to establish a more shared understanding of peace and justice.

Dr. David Connolly is Head of the Conflict Prevention Program at The Hague Institute. Johanna Ospina is a researcher based in The Hague. She recently completed her doctorate on Peace Education in Armed Conflict Situations. Building a New Approach from the Case of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

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