Open Letter to Vice Chancellors of Universities in Uganda

Dear Vice Chancellors, On behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, I am pleased to address this open letter to you and advert your attention to a higher education paradigm through the introduction of human rights as undergraduate common core course.

You may be recalled that the international community emphasized the essence of human rights education in 1995 with the declaration of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education. Calling on States and institutions to include human rights as subjects in the curricula of all learning institutions, the declaration stipulates that human rights education and training are essential for the promotion and achievement of stable and harmonious relations among communities and for fostering mutual understanding, tolerance and peace. In 2004 also, the UN General Assembly unanimously proclaimed the World Programme for Human Rights Education which in 2010-2014 focused on introducing human rights in the higher education system and human rights training for teachers and educators, civil servants, law enforcement officials and military personnel at all levels

These international normative efforts underline the fact that human rights education and training are essential for the promotion of universal respect for and observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all regardless of age, social class, educational level and any other circumstances. As such, human rights education is not only an entitlement of every human being, but also a necessity for responsible global citizenship. In highlighting the value added of human rights education, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights postulates that “education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights component, can be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel.” 

What is the use to humanity that Josef Mengele, notorious for his role in the atrocities of the Auschwitz concentration camp had advanced degrees in medicine and anthropology? Of what benefit is it to humanity that eight of the 15 people that planned the Holocaust at Wannsee in 1942 were doctorate degree holders, who shone academically and yet were profoundly toxic to the world. The High Commissioner vilified their type of education which is bereft of the smallest iota of ethics, compassion and understanding when it mattered most. For education to be balanced, every student should acquire a foundational understanding of human rights. They should learn and experience the fundamental human rights values of respect, equality and justice and ultimately be able, too, to understand the power that human rights principles bestows on them.

There is no gainsaying the fact that human rights education constitutes an essential contribution to the long-term prevention of human rights abuses and represents an important investment in the endeavor to achieve a just society in which all human rights of all persons are valued and respected. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights underlines the importance of human rights education. Article 26 stipulates that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Through human rights education, students will learn what bigotry and chauvinism are, and the evil they can produce. They will learn that blind obedience can be exploited by authority figures for wicked ends. They will understand that they are not exceptional because of where they were born, how they look, what passport they carry, or the social class, caste or creed of their parents; they will learn that no-one is intrinsically superior to her or his fellow human beings. Students will learn to recognize their own biases and correct them. They will learn to redirect their own aggressive impulses and use nonviolent means to resolve disputes. They will learn to be inspired by the courage of the pacifiers and by those who assist, not those who destroy. Students can be guided by human rights education to make informed choices in life, to approach situations with critical and independent thought, and to empathize with other points of view. These lessons are surely as fundamental to life on earth as advanced calculus.

 Introducing Human Rights as Undergraduate Common Core Course in Universities

On the understanding that a multidisciplinary study of human rights for all undergraduate students has the ability to empower and inspire students as future human rights protectors, promoters and defenders, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) proposes to collaborate with pilot universities in Uganda to introduce human rights as a first year, first semester, common core course for all undergraduate students.  This initiative takes cognizance of the fact that universities are fountains of knowledge and best suited as avenues for valued transformation of society. It is also predicated on the conviction that the next crop of leaders and persons with significant responsibilities within the society would largely if not entirely constitute persons currently undergoing university education. Empowering these people early ensures that the country has a chance of being run by leaders and populace who are sensitive and advocates of human rights.

On the other hand, the enjoyment of all human rights by all as envisaged in the Constitution of Uganda can only be realized when every educator becomes a human rights defender and every educational institution transforms into a zone of tolerance and dignity. Human rights can also be realized through an informed citizenry empowered individually and collectively to make continued demand for the promotion and protection of all human rights. For the capacity of leaders of tomorrow to be developed to engage with human rights from a multi-sectoral, multi-dimensional, inter-disciplinary perspectives, and as cardinal pillar of good governance and a just society, this initiative is pertinent in Uganda, as well as in other countries.

In Uganda, whilst existing resourcefulness have facilitated the incorporation of human rights as either a master’s degree programme or as an elective course within the bachelor’s degree programmes, no effort has been made towards introducing human rights as a common core course to be enrolled and examined by all undergraduate students irrespective of department or faculty. An interdisciplinary teaching of human rights as an undergraduate common core course will inter alia nurture students to cultivate the capacities to make moral choices, take principled positions on issues, incline to democratic and civil actions and develop moral and intellectual integrity that transcends personal and parochial interests. It is believed that this initiative will also generate well-informed citizenry conversant with the inalienability of human dignity and the need to create demand and supply side of accountability, transparency and peaceful coexistence.

 Scope of Course

The course is multi-disciplinary in nature and encompasses introductory topics including historical development of human rights, overview of regional and international human rights instruments and mechanisms, national human rights institutions and enforcement mechanisms, etc. The general objective of the course is to equip learners with the basic knowledge of human rights, particularly in the context of Uganda. It equally seeks to develop knowledge and understanding of the international legal and reporting frameworks before taking an incisive look at the Ugandan human rights framework. While providing an overview of the justice framework of Uganda, the course will highlight the specific needs of vulnerable populations, such as women, children, and older persons, persons with disabilities, internally displaced persons and marginalized communities. As a one semester course which shall run for a minimum of 15 weeks disaggregated into approximately forty five lecture hours, the methods of instruction will consists of lectures, in lecture discussions, class presentations, case studies, student-teacher consultations, supervised independent study and coursework.


This initiative will be achieved through a three-step approach. The first step will be consultation with relevant stakeholders for their buy-in. It may involve dialogue with Deans of Studies, Academic Registrars, Vice Chancellors and ultimately university Senate. These proposed consultations are expected to create the platform to discuss with concerned principals the sequencing of the proposed initiative, sample interested institutions of learning and identify pilot universities.

The second step will be to engage with focal-groups in the pilot universities in the preparation of a course description, course justification, course requirements, course delivery strategy, course learning outcomes and course outline. After the development of the syllabus by the pilot universities with the technical assistance from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the final product will be subjected to a multi-stakeholders validation process with the participation of representatives from academia, the judiciary, lawyers, civil society organization, and public institutions involved in the promotion and protection of human rights.

The third step will involve the nomination of lectures drawn from across, departments, colleges and faculties of the pilot universities who will teach the course. Having identified the team of lectures for the course and bearing in mind that they may have uneven understanding and knowledge of human rights, these lecturers will be enrolled in a series of substantive and pedagogical trainings on human rights. Thereafter, the course will be officially launched in the pilot universities and the teaching of human rights as a common core course commenced.

Strategically envisioning the capacity needs of the leaders of tomorrow and as a proactive step in pioneering a collaboration that will align the skills of students to the demands of an evolving world where human rights is an integral and inseparable component of governance, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recommends this noble initiative to universities in Uganda and commits to stand by interested universities to achieve this landmark.

For further information and inquiry, please contact or 0772-775-781


Yours faithfully,

Uchenna Emelonye, LL.D

Country Representative

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights