“All human beings are born free and equal. Everyone is entitled to the same human rights without discrimination of any kind. Everyone has the human right to life, liberty, and security.”

—Universal Declaration of Human Rights (first three articles summarized), adopted Dec. 10, 1948 by the United Nations

International Human Rights Day—celebrated annually on Dec. 10—has a special meaning in a place that has committed to being a human rights city. In Washington, D.C., which adopted such a resolution in 2008, Dec. 10 is an opportunity to reflect on how human rights education has affected its community in the past year.

This year, the city council kicked off “DC Year of Human Rights Learning” on Dec. 10, calling on the American Friends Service Committee and the Washington, D.C. public schools to continue to promote the importance of educated residents about human rights.

Since passing its Human Rights City resolution, Washington has been able to reach out to more than 150 students each year through AFSC, which focuses on peace and economic justice through its Washington program.

Jean-Louis Peta Ikambana, the program’s director, explains that students involved with the program get “more than just a human rights class.”  

“The project strives to achieve universal commitment to the dignity and worth of each human person by working with D.C. Public Schools students to increase their knowledge and understanding of human rights, as a way to create a culture of long lasting peace in D.C.,” he says.

The project’s main goals are to increase human rights knowledge, to foster critical thinking, and to empower youth to become agents for peace and social change.

The curriculum uses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a foundation. A survey of 89 students from seven public and private schools in 2008 found that only two had even heard of the universal declaration, but every respondent indicated interest in learning more about human rights.

“I am surprised that human rights is not part of our curriculum [in school]” says Alex, one of the students involved in the project. “I am convinced that the world will achieve peace and justice if everyone makes the efforts to live by the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

While the city council’s support of AFSC shows a continued interest in expanding human rights learning, Jean-Louis says the project is still reaching for an ambitious goal: to expand human rights learning to all D.C. public school students.

“Human rights speak of the destiny of humanity as a whole,” said Wilson High School’s Principal Cahall at this year’s celebration. “It speaks of the hopes and aspirations of all people in every region of the world, religion, and culture.”

A year from now, on Dec. 10, 2013, Washington will join other cities around the world in marking the 65th anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.