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Human rights educator empowers people to act

Despite scars from fighting, taunts and hammer blows in his school years in East London, England, Rhys Johnson decided at age 17 to hone the skills of dialogue and debate by entering education, politics and law.

After 10 years of human rights work around the world, the story of what Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai County and the Inland Northwest did to promote human rights drew his interest.  Their next steps fit his goals.


Rhys Johnson

As the executive director of the Human Rights Education Institute with an office at 505 Front St. in Coeur d’Alene, Rhys visits schools and community groups to meet people and stir ideas for teaching children to become responsible citizens.

He believes the heart of strengthening human rights is to educate people to participate in democratic society—in schools and in life experiences.

Growing up a mixed-race child of an Indian mother and English father, he lived in poverty in East London ghetto project housing.

“Poverty led to racism and violence,” said Rhys, but “some incredible teachers helped give me a sense of myself, even though I didn’t fit in.  My brothers and I were not accepted in either of my parents’ communities.”

Despite bullying and being bullied, he heard those teachers’ message of the importance of knowledge and learning.

At 16, two days before an exam, he was sitting outside studying. When he asked his “racist neighbors” to turn down their music, they came out of their home with fists flying and hit him on the head six times with a hammer.

“It was amazing.  I’m glad I didn’t die—for my sake, my family’s sake and their sake.  They would have spent their lives in prison,” said Rhys.

A teacher advised him: “Don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation.  If you have a problem, turn to someone more powerful.”

Rhys has turned his anger from that situation into a passion to fight for human rights, to help the underdog and challenge the rich and powerful through face-to-face conversations.

“The rich need to know what it’s like to be poor, and whites need to know what it’s like to be black,” he said. “What better place to do that than in schools and organizations of Idaho and Eastern Washington!” he said.

He knows what it’s like for school children to feel lost, needing to know about more than the Revolutionary War, Civil War or World Wars. 

“They need to know how to deal with abuse and violence, so no one else will be brutalized,” he said.

After high school, Rhys studied law, earning degrees in 1994 from the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom and in 1995 from University College in London.  In addition, he studied international law, human rights, and humanitarian, environmental and economic law.

He worked eight years in London with programs advocating for homeless families, mentally disabled criminals, immigrants and refugees. 

While visiting a friend in Gaza in 1993, he found a job promoting human rights and then worked with the United Nations Human Rights Capacity Building program.  From 1997 to 2002, he was assistant director of a Palestinian human rights non-governmental organization in Jerusalem.

Before coming to lead the Human Rights Education Institute in November 2004, he worked with the Judicial System Monitoring Program in East Timor and in various short-term human rights and justice advocacy programs in Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia, Bosnia, Switzerland, France and South Africa.

Rhys decided the best place to live in order to change U.S. policies he saw having impact on lives of people in those countries was the United States. 
“I wanted to be where democratic decisions are made, to help Americans who are divided understand dynamics of their conflicts and seek new ways to move into democracy,” he said.

So he came to Coeur d’Alene to walk with people and educate them to live effectively in a democratic society. 
He is impressed that the region used the tools of democracy to challenge and close a neo-Nazi group and to educate the community to value diversity.

Despite the area’s homogeneity, because some fled multi-cultural California, Rhys is amazed that the neo-Nazis were unable to infiltrate the area and gain power over it.

“The community came together to deal with the threat of a fringe group,” he said.  “Even the area’s homogeneity was not sufficient for the Nazis to succeed when the people in the region joined forces to work against that system of ideas.

“Community efforts are the best way to promote human rights, acceptance, justice, community, freedom, democracy and prosperity.

“Education does not begin at five and end at 25.  Great teachers learn all their lives,” Rhys said.  “They challenge and are challenged, so democracy is about more than voting for representatives and handing over power to them.

“It needs a vibrant community to decide the content of education, the care at hospitals and provisions for social welfare.  Democracy does not end with being partisan,” he said.  “We need teachers to teach children so they will be able to eradicate poverty when they grow up, rather than abusing others because they have experienced physical, emotional and verbal abuse.”

Human rights issues are about more than political arrests or torture of prisoners, Rhys pointed out. 

Having spent years working against the negative side of human rights, he relishes the chance to work on the positive side, to promote human rights this region’s communities exemplify.

For him, water rights are human rights, so decisions about the aquifer and access to water are human rights issues.

“Water is fundamental to life, health and a healthy environment.  If water were oil, we would protect it with armed guards.  Threats to health and drinking water happen around the world.  For example,  Bhopal, India, let a chemical plant be built “with shoddy labor rights and safety standards, polluting the water and lands, killing and injuring hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.

Rhys wonders why three County Commissioners were allowed to let Burlington Northern Railway build a refueling depot over the only source of water for the region’s 500,000 people, when it could poison the water forever.

“We should not risk ruining the natural wealth that assures our health,” he said. 

Simple, practical lessons can be effective ways to teach in classrooms and in life, Rhys believes. 

In this society with too many consumption choices diverting  people from political issues, he suggests an object lesson to teach that a small amount of money here is a large amount elsewhere.

A teacher asks children bring $1, what some people live on for a day. Then they learn about world issues and choose a cause to receive their dollars. 
“Youth need to become engaged in the world and in service in their community,” he said.

Recognizing that “together our dollars can make a difference,” the Lake City Human Rights Club is using that idea and collecting dollars on June 1, World Dollar Day, to give to Heifer Project International, St. Vincent de Paul, Doctors without Borders and a teen community center.  Rhys has been working with youth for six months.  Their website is

To foster democracy, Rhys seeks to spark “lively, engaging dialogue and free thinking” to remind leaders that power lies with the people.

“Voting for someone does not mean we endorse or should accept all they do,” he said. “We all have something to say.  When we can say it, we move democracy forward.”

In Gaza, he saw that justice issues there had a global sense, connected to justice issues in London and here.  There, he encouraged Israelis to respect Palestinian human rights and need for a secure place to live, as much as their own need for a secure place.

“To achieve peace both sides need to respect each other’s human rights,” he said, including religious differences.

“Eight years in a war zone became part of my spiritual journey.  My apartment in Jerusalem overlooked the Western Wall.  I saw a sea of humanity and spirituality from my window and on the streets, passing pilgrims coming around the world,” he said.

That spiritual energy gave him to a new sense of spirituality, unlike abuse he experienced attending a mosque in London.  His mother was Muslim, so his father converted, but essentially was Christian, he said. 

While he felt disjointed as a Muslim in a Christian world, he finds the today’s multi-cultural and multi-religious reality erases that alienation, enriching everyone.

Rhys believes in the connection of people who share belief in God, even though that belief may be manifested in different people in different ways.
So he promotes respect of all religions:  “It’s not about our differences, but about our similarities,” especially given that “for too many people, capital is religion, because it correlates with power.”

He sees that the separation of church and state protects religion from government interference, from infringing on freedom of religion.

“Because respect of human rights can build better communities, we need to shift from money driving politics under the cloak of religion that secures narrow interests for narrow groups.

 “Human rights reflect the human desire to be free to make choices,” he said. 
“Because my justice is connected to everyone else’s justice, if we can make changes here, we can make changes around the world.  Leaders in a democracy need to consult with the people,” Rhys pointed out.

The Human Rights Education Institute seeks to empower people to work together and challenge present and future threats to human rights, including health, safety, freedoms and voice.

“A well-informed society keeps democracy in the hands of the people,” Rhys affirmed.

For information, call (208) 292-2359 or email

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © June 2005