A human rights front against the moral and national education programme
In face of strong societal opposition to the compulsory introduction of moral and national education in local schools, the government has finally retreated from its original position, for now. Worries about the curriculum’s contents, assessment methods and whether it will be made mandatory at a future date remain. The educational objectives as reflected in the Curriculum Guide indeed prime facie, violate parents’ and students’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and are arguably incompatible with relevant clauses of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Article 18 of ICCPR provides that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and no one shall be subject to coercion impairing such freedom as to have a religion or belief of one’s choice. Similar rights for children are protected by UNCRC Article 14.
While respecting children’s freedom of thought, international human rights laws recognize children’s limited capacity in adopting a belief of their choice. Thus, insofar as religious and moral education is concerned, Article 18(4) of ICCPR provides that parents and legal guardians have the liberty to ensure that such education of their children conforms to their own convictions. In other words, parents and guardians have the right to disallow their children to attend religious or ethics classes which do not conform to their own convictions.
Nevertheless, parents’ and guardians’ right on their children’s education is not absolute. Article 14(2) of UNCRC enjoins that such right can only be exercised in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the children. Parents’ and guardians’ right diminishes as their children grow. Although the Committee on the Rights of the Child has not determined the precise age at which children should be allowed to exercise their full right to freedom of religion or belief, the norm is that such right should be granted some years before maturity. Thus, presumably, high school students should be allowed to exercise their right to freedom of thought in full.
It is important to note that the right to freedom of thought is to have wide application. The United Nations Human Rights Committee takes the view that the meaning of “religion” and “belief” should be “broadly construed”. The right to freedom of thought is not to be limited in its application to traditional religions only but should cover philosophies of life, humanism, non-religious life stances and political beliefs as well.
In this connection, the Committee has also considered the issue of coercion and takes it to include not only the use or threat of physical force and penal sanctions but also policies and practices having the same intentions or effects, such as practices restricting access to education. Thus, if a student’s refusal to enrol in a morality or religion course on the ground of freedom of thought results in expulsion from school, it constitutes a form of coercion.
Following this line, it has been argued that compulsory state-run instruction in secular ideologies, such as North Korea’s Juche ideology and the Marxist ideology, are at odds with ICCPR Article 18.
According to the General Comment of the UN Human Rights Committee, compulsory religious and moral education is allowable only under two conditions: 1) it is given in a neutral and objective way and 2) opt-out clauses or alternatives accommodating the wishes of parents and guardians are provided. While what “neutral and objective” means is subject to debate, human rights law academics observe that in the field of religious education, instruction aiming to prepare students for participating in a particular religion is unambiguously not neutral and not objective.
This line of analysis on religious and moral education can arguably be extended to instruction in mandatory public education that aims to instill a particular philosophy or value of life in students. The ideological education in North Korea is again a case in point. In other words, public education that includes instruction intending to instill in students a particular outlook on life is inconsistent with ICCPR Article 18 and UNCRC Article 14 unless opt-out clauses or alternatives are provided.
In the Hong Kong context, whether the proposed Moral and National Education subject violates the right to freedom of thought depends on whether it bears an intention to inculcate a particular life outlook in students. Upon examination, a case can be made that the Curriculum Guide that has been issued in relation to the subject does manifest such an intention. Not a few learning objectives and related teaching examples listed in the Guide come across as dictating on how students should behave, think and feel. Students are not only required to know X but to behave and think in the X way and to feel a particular sentiment towards X. Most importantly, even assessment procedures have been proposed to ascertain that students do behave, think and feel in ways as the Guide prescribes; this smacks of the institution of some sort of “positive vetting”.
In the Curriculum Guide, students are required to feel a sense of belonging to and to cherish one’s homeland and home customs, to understand the situation and the history of the country from a particular perspective, to have a sense of admiration and gratitude for the homeland’s natural landscape and natural heritage, and to live out ancient/traditional Chinese virtues and wisdom. In brief, students are required to adopt particular outlooks on how they should lead their life. Since no opt-out clauses or alternatives are provided, the curriculum is prima facie incompatible with the right to freedom of thought.
It must be emphasized that at issue is not only the intrinsic worth of the contents of the proposed curriculum but also the perceived intention to coerce students into accepting such contents as the “contents” of their life. The disagreement is not only on whether students should for instance feel gratitude for their mother country’s natural landscape but whether it is legitimate to coerce them to feel so. Let it be not forgotten that informing students of X and imposing X on students are two very different matters.
Putting up a case against compulsory moral and religious education as a violation of the right to freedom of thought is not without precedent. In 1997, Norway introduced a new mandatory religious subject in the Norwegian school system. Several Norwegian parents with a non-religious humanist life stance filed a case with the UN Human Rights Committee. They argued that the Norwegian government had violated their right to secure religious and moral education for their children in conformity with their own convictions, and further that the right was also applicable to non-religious life stances. The Committee ruled that Norway’s new mandatory religious subject did violate ICCPR Article 18(4).
George Cautherley (高德禮)
Hong Kong Democratic Foundation (香港民主促進會副主席)
10 September 2012