Bringing Human Rights to Life

by Godelieve Cooymans, SGI-Italy



A guide explains the exhibit to a school class in Florence

From 1996, the Italian Buddhist Institute Soka Gakkai organized a photographic exhibition entitled “Toward the Century of Humanity: Human Rights in Today’s World” which was shown in 10 cities in Italy. The exhibition was part of an effort to foster dialogue about human rights, starting from youth, and over half of the 170,000 visitors were elementary, secondary and high school students. Each showing of the exhibit was backed financially by the local Public Administration as well as by private sponsors.

In 2001, in consultation with human rights experts, the Institute developed a new multimedia exhibition entitled: “The City of Human Rights.” The president of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, officially inaugurated this new exhibition in Matera in September 2001. The exhibition has now traveled to six Italian cities; Matera, Florence, Forlí, Genoa, Cagliari and Perugia, reaching 107,000 visitors, of whom 51,500 were under 19 years old. Many more cities are now requesting the exhibit.

The City of Human Rights

related article The Empowerment of Individuals The Empowerment of Individuals Human rights education is aimed at enabling people to understand and claim their own rights and those of others. Such respect for human dignity is at the heart of the SGI. “The City of Human Rights” exhibition is organized under the patronage of the president of the Italian Republic and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and it has received official sponsorship from UNHCR, the secretary general of the European Council, the European Commission in Italy, the minister for equal opportunities, the National Commissions for UNESCO and UNICEF, Amnesty International, Green Cross Italy and other NGOs. The exhibition has also been included as a “Flagship Event” in the UNESCO International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.

The exhibition, which takes on the name of the city where it is hosted (“Florence, City of Human Rights” and so on), in order to involve the local community, is primarily educational. It also aims to emphasize the actions that one can take to uphold human rights. At the end of each section is a panel which reads “Me Too,” with information on human rights organizations and space for suggestions and remarks.

The principal thematic areas in the exhibition are:

SGI-Italy General Director Mitsuhiro Kaneda welcomes the president of the Italian republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and his wife Franca the day before the official opening of the exhibition [Luca Marinlli]

Every theme includes the following elements: stories of ordinary people who represent a particular right, relevant stories of well-known personalities; an overview of the need for, or threats to the right at both local and global levels; NGO activities; what you can do (“Me Too”); and the text of official human rights documents.

Through an imaginary tunnel, the visitors enter the city of human rights as refugees, while at the end of the journey they exit through an imaginary City Hall and become citizens of the city of human rights, receiving a real passport.

Entrance to the exhibition is free of charge, and as many young students and their teachers as possible are invited to the exhibition. Specially trained guides help the young visitors find their way, and a Human Rights Manual is given to each visitor to help them deepen their knowledge of their human rights. The manual contains articles, quotes and interactive exercises that can be done individually or in class.

There is also a CD-ROM which contains exercises for teachers; documentation, graphics from the exhibition, and suggestions for further reading. Each school class that visits the exhibition receives a CD-ROM.

The youngest visitors to the exhibition are asked to contribute drawings and poems on human rights and peace.

Earth Charter Forum

related article SGI Participates in Events in Japan and Italy Calling for Abolition of the Death Penalty SGI Participates in Events in Japan and Italy Calling for Abolition of the Death Penalty On October 29, an event calling for the abolition of the death penalty in Japan was held at the Italian Institute of Culture in Tokyo. Sponsored by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Christian lay movement based in Italy, and the European Commission, the event was organized as part of the Community of Sant'Egidio's "No Justice Without Life" campaign to raise public awareness against the death penalty around the world. In order to strengthen their personal involvement and awareness of human rights, concurrent with the exhibition, a forum discussion on the Earth Charter was organized in every city, for students aged between 13 and 19. In small groups of 10–12, mixed by age and school class, and guided by facilitators specially trained in nonviolent discussion methods, these young “protagonists of the future” discussed the relevance of the Earth Charter to their daily lives. One of the first outcomes in every town was that many schoolchildren for the first time met or talked with the students of other schools in their neighborhood.

So the first “shock” was to find themselves in mixed groups with children of a different cultural background, a different age or a different political conviction. Eventually they learned that through dialogue and encounter even the biggest differences between them could easily be bridged.

On entering the discussion groups, the participants were often suspicious and afraid of the boredom they unfortunately experience at school, but most of those who joined the forum discussions were very enthusiastic by the end, happy that finally—and mostly for the first time—they had been able to freely express their thoughts and objectives on important subjects. At the end of the discussion forum the schoolchildren were asked to respond to three questions: What do I ask of myself? What do I ask of my city? What do I ask of the Earth Charter? Some of the many remarkable responses are shown below. Many children expressed their determination to involve themselves more in human rights activities from now on.

Talk Show Success

Speaking out at a “Talk Show” in Siena [Giuseppe De Simone]

The results of each discussion forum were then presented to the schools and local authorities during a “Talk Show.” On this occasion the students were free to express themselves and raise questions with the local authorities. During the Talk Shows NGOs such as Amnesty International and Emergency War Victims presented themselves to the children and also held question-and-answer sessions. A guest speaker was invited to every show, say a young refugee from Africa or a woman from Chile who had experienced torture.

The frequent sense of alienation from social processes felt by ordinary people, and especially by youth, is certainly one of the most dramatic problems of our time. The exhibition “The City of Human Rights” and the forum discussions on the Earth Charter are proving an effective tool to help young people bridge this sense of alienation and feel themselves directly involved in the major issues facing the world today.

Voices of Youth from the Earth Charter Forum Discussions

What do I ask of myself?

What do I ask of my city?

What do I ask of the Earth Charter?

[Courtesy of July 2002 SGI Quarterly]

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