Promoting Human Rights: SGI's Efforts

By Kazunari Fujii
photo Viewing the "Treasuring the Future: Children's Rights and Realities" exhibition, launched by SGI-USA in 1996 [SGI-USA]

A culture of human rights requires more than being able to live free from abuses--as critically important as that is. Rather, a culture of human rights can be thought of as a constellation of positive values, at the heart of which is a deep sense of the inherent value and dignity of each human life.

Human rights abuses arise ultimately from deeply rooted tendencies in human life. These include such negative attitudes and emotions as prejudice, intolerance, ignorance and fear. Even where strong negative emotions or intentions are not present, the more widely dispersed feelings of indifference and apathy--our unfortunate capacity to ignore or forget the dire circumstances of other human beings--play a critical role in enabling human rights abuses to occur and continue.

Building a rich and robust culture of human rights involves the struggle, waged in each human heart, to resist and transform these negative impulses.

Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and others have taken a stand for the rights of all people, often at great personal risk. But even if we don't confront extreme situations--and even if we feel we lack the courage of these remarkable individuals--we can each, in our own lives, make a significant contribution to building a culture of human rights.

A profound change in the inner life of just one person can be the start of a process that can transform whole societies, helping us move toward the ideal of a world in which all people can enjoy their lives in security, dignity and happiness. This perspective is at the heart of the philosophy of Buddhism, which places great stress on the power of the individual to effect change.

Our personal interactions are a key battleground in the struggle for universal human dignity. Consistently treating people with respect for their inherent dignity--their worth as human beings--is a challenge we can take on anytime, anywhere.

Interconnection and interdependence are key concepts in Buddhism, expressed by the parable of two bundles of reeds that will stand only if they support each other. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr.--"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"--are in this sense not a moral injunction, but a description of the reality we inhabit and live daily. When we understand this, we naturally develop a sense of empathetic connection and solidarity with other people around the world.

The UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004), and its succeeding global framework, the World Programme for Human Rights Education, require proactive efforts by each individual in all nations. Dissemination of information is a key element of human rights education. However, knowledge alone does not create the kind of engaged and committed attitudes that are needed. Human rights education should sensitize and empower individuals with the determination to respect one another, recognizing that, given the interdependent nature of life, respect for the rights of others is ultimately a necessary condition for ensuring respect for one's own rights.

Based on the commitment and philosophy outlined above, the SGI has been working to actively support efforts to build a culture of human rights.

The current phase of the SGI's efforts in this regard dates from 1990. At his meeting in November of that year with then African National Congress (ANC) Chairman Nelson Mandela, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda announced several initiatives related to human rights: holding an exhibition on the theme of human rights; arranging an antiapartheid photo exhibition; and sponsoring public lectures on human rights.

In 1991, Soka Gakkai hosted an anti-apartheid photo exhibition in several Japanese cities, viewed by 100,000 people. A human rights public lecture series was held in Japan and Italy, inviting speakers from the ANC.

Grassroots Awareness

Then in 1993, the SGI launched the exhibition "Toward a Century of Humanity: An Overview of Human Rights in Today's World," later held at the United Nations Office at Geneva in cooperation with the then UN Centre for Human Rights. As a resource supporting the UN Decade for Human Rights Education, it was viewed by more than 500,000 people including many schoolchildren in 40 venues in eight countries. Various side events on human rights themes were organized in parallel involving local community groups and schools in order to raise public awareness.

photo The "Human Rights in Today's World" exhibition in Toronto, Canada, 1993

The SGI has also organized exhibitions on other themes such as the Holocaust, children's rights and therights of refugees. In 2001, SGI-Italy launched the exhibition "The City of Human Rights." Visitors entered the exhibition through a tunnel as "refugees" and emerged from the other end through a city hall as "citizens." Such exhibitions have created important public spaces in which learning is shared and people are empowered to confront difficult realities in ways that might not be possible alone at home with a video or book.

They have also served as a focal point for related events, such as seminars, puppet shows, concerts, etc. Stressing firsthand experience and agency, many of these events have featured the voices of people who have been directly impacted by human rights abuses.

Other SGI human rights initiatives in different countries have focused on stopping bullying in schools, treasuring diversity and building interfaith and intercultural communication and understanding. Typically organized in collaboration with other civil society organizations, these events help generate a multidimensional learning environment offering both information and inspiration.

From around the year 2001, midway through the UN Decade for Human Rights Education, NGOs became increasingly vocal in their advocacy of human rights education as an important global strategy toward strengthening respect for human rights. In August 2001, a statement by Mr. Ikeda, in which he called for a global framework for human rights education to continue after the end of the UN Decade, was presented at a roundtable on Education for Human Rights and Peace at the NGO Forum held in parallel with the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa.

photo SGI-Australia members regularly participate in Harmony Day activities; in 2001, SGIA members created a "Harmony Village" at the Perth Zoo and a "Harmony Garden" featuring plants from five continents [SGI-Australia]

Focusing on influencing global policymaking at the former UN Commission on Human Rights, the SGI continued networking with many NGOs and other civil society actors, contributing to the process of UN General Assembly adoption on December 10, 2004, of the resolution that proclaimed the World Programme of Human Rights Education as a successor to the Decade.

In May 2006, the SGI collaborated with other NGOs to form the NGO Working Group on Human Rights Education and Learning in Geneva. This is a specialized NGO network body within the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the UN (CONGO). Currently, I am serving as chair of this NGO Working Group, networking and cooperating in partnership with other NGOs and actors.


Kazunari Fujii is the SGI's representative to the UN in Geneva and chair of the NGO Working Group on Human Rights Education & Learning of CONGO Geneva.