'More explosive than Semtex';Reviews;TV;Television

8th May 1998 at 01:00
OFF-LIMITS: Human Rights Channel 4. Fridays. 9.00-9.25am. May 15 and 22. Age range: 11-19.

It is 50 years since the fledgling United Nations unanimously endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is an excellent opportunity for Channel 4 Schools to point out for today's young people the desperate importance of that noble but over-optimistic claim. These two programmes for upper secondary PSE and RE show how widely human rights are still abused and offer some pointers to students as to what they can do about it.

They start with a bang. We are in an ordinary classroom in an ordinary school. There's a citizenship lesson in progress. "What," the teacher is asking, "does 'community' really mean?" Outside a black car draws up. Two men emerge, in dark glasses, jack-boots and black fatigues. They carry guns. They march ominously to our classroom door, crash it open and without a word identify their victim - Pete. We see him frog-marched to the car, thrown into jail, stripped and left cowering in his cell. The titles roll. We are back in the classroom. Whitefaced, a girl is asking, "They can't do that, sir, can they? Can they?" Enter Jill Morrell as presenter. "Can they? If you want your rights protected, you've got to protect the rights of others." In starkly effective mime, our students re-enact just three of Amnesty International's register of countless crimes against young people: an Algerian schoolgirl is shot dead for not wearing the veil; a Guatamalan street child is killed by the police; a Turkish girl of 12 is tortured. "Human rights are more dangerous than guns, more explosive than Semtex," Jill Morrell says.

We see clips of the aftermath of Belsen (which is confusing - who are the people bull-dozing these piles of contorted bodies? children will ask) and of Tiananmen Square; then, briefly, of Bosnia. Then, to bring us even nearer home: of the Bridgewater Four; the Joy Gardner case; the age of homosexual consent; a desperate girl, bullied at school.

Some of this is handled well - the use of our students as presenters is particularly effective - but by now there is some loss both of focus and of balance and that is compounded by a digression to Jill Morrell's campaign, the Friends of John McCarthy. The message here, as McCarthy himself says, is: "The easiest thing, always, is to be a bystander" - but the story is told as if for students it was recent news. The first pro-gramme ends by asking students "What can you do?".

Unfortunately, the second programme breaks this thread. "Can we see for ourselves what human rights mean in prac-tice?" our students ask, and in a trice (with lots of travel library shots) they are whisked away to do just that. They go to Switzerland to learn about non-governmental organisations such as the UNCommission on Human Rights; to the Philippines to learn about involuntary "disappearances"; to Hamburg to learn about racist attacks on Turkish-born guest workers.

This section does not work well. It's not till the end of the tape when our students meet a group of young people with disabilities that the real messages strike home. The interview with the speech-impaired girl, my test audience said, was as moving as the famous earlier footage of the young man and the tank in Tiananmen Square.

So there is some work here for teachers, too. Fine. That is as it should be, and the programme notes are quite excellent for that purpose. They include the text of the UN Declaration itself, details of the work of Amnesty International and programmes themselves. I have no doubt that teachers will want to tape them and re-visit sections after class discussion. They are a valuable resource on a vital topic.

Michael Duffy The two programmes are available on video for pound;12.99; the teacher's notes are available on the Channel 4 Web site: http:www.channel4.com schoolsonline_resources

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