Haigazian University remains committed to human rights
Written by Wilbert van Saane*
Many young people in the Middle East witness violations of human rights on a daily basis. The political and humanitarian situation in the region is so dire that many have given up and fled the region. What about the young people who are still there? Have they lost their belief in the validity of the human rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of 1948?
At Haigazian University, a liberal arts college with around 900 students located in the heart of the Lebanese capital Beirut, faculty and students are firmly committed to human rights. Salient detail: around 5 % of Haigazian students are presently from Syria.
Human rights as an academic subject
The president of Haigazian University, Rev. Dr. Paul Haidostian, expresses the weight given to human rights: ‘Our hope is to teach, in the classroom and outside, that every human being is to be respected, not because of what they have done, or who they belong to, but simply because they were born to be part of God’s good intentions, and therefore worthy of enjoying the rights of a good life.’
This vision led Haigazian University to pioneer the integration of human rights on the undergraduate level. It was the first university in Lebanon to initiate a regular three-credit course in human rights, in 1994. Since then the course has been annually taught by Wa’il Kheir, director of the Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights, an institution in which Haigazian faculty continues to be involved. The aim of the course is to acquaint students with the theory and practice of human rights. It is taught in the Political Science department, but open to all students.
Even students who do not choose the human rights course do not graduate without some notion of human rights and some exercise in analyzing human rights violations. In the required Intercultural Studies series, a week is dedicated to the study of the International Bill of Human Rights. In other courses, such as Armenian Genocide and Feminist Theory, human rights also figure prominently.
All-round personal development
Human rights also play a role in the extracurricular activities. Haigazian University focuses not only on academic excellence, but also on character formation. What happens outside the classroom is as important as what happens inside, is an adage that is often repeated on campus. That is why Haigazian has such a strong tradition of student clubs and sports. Teaching respect for human rights is not just a matter of discourse: it needs to be practiced in the community. On the wall of the student lounge, words of a vision group from 2007 remind the students that: ‘we embrace diversity and constructive dialogue and oppose all kinds of fanaticism.’
Patrice Gillibert, secretary of the UN Committee against Torture, underlined the importance of all-round formation in his speech at Haigazian’s 2015 commencement exercises. He quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.’ Mr. Gillibert added: ‘Such an education therefore unlocks the doors to all rights and freedoms and fosters the promotion of fundamental values of respect, equality, justice and freedom which are all at the core of the Haigazian University vision and mission.’
A change of mentality
Why is teaching human rights so important in today’s Middle East? Elie Bahhadi, a Political Science major from Syria, comments: ‘Sadly, the majority of the people in the Middle East don’t respect other people’s rights. Teaching about human rights in schools and universities is beneficial to change their mentality.’ Yeraz Basmadjian, a Finance major from Lebanon, agrees and adds that teaching human rights ‘gives us a better understanding of our own basic rights, and will equip us with tools to defend them.’
The University’s Armenian heritage undoubtedly influences its commitment to human rights. Even non-Armenian students realize this. Joy el-Hajj, who specializes in Advertising and Communication, explains: ‘The reason Haigazian University teaches human rights is because it values them dearly. It is said that once you lose something you truly know its value. Unfortunately, the Armenians once lost their human rights and they had to fight for survival and justice. Teaching human rights does not only show how much it is valued at Haigazian, but also how valuable we as humans are.’
Education key to improve human rights
Haigazian graduates who want to impact the region positively are up for a great challenge. In Syria, respect for human rights will have to be built from zero once the violence subsides. The country ranks (again) highest on the Human Rights Risk Index of 2015. Even in Lebanon, however, there is much room for improvement. A careful reading of Human Rights Watch’s 2015 world report reveals that in Lebanon refugees are deprived of many basic rights; inmates of detention centers and prisons are exposed to torture; critical journalists are curbed and fined based on an ambiguous defamation law; migrant workers are excluded from the labor law and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse; women have unequal access to divorce and custody and cannot pass on their nationality to their children.
A better, more peaceful future for the Middle East begins with education that focuses not only on knowledge and achievement, but also on the value of human beings. It is this type of education that Haigazian University offers. In his commencement address, Mr. Gillibert testified that the common denominator of Haigazian graduates is that ‘they have been shining the values and ethics of human rights instilled by the Haigazian University’.
*Wilbert van Saane is the chaplain at Haigazian University. He is a graduate of Utrecht University and an ordained minister of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands.