Human Rights 70 Years After the UDHR

Are human rights today a real-time commitment or a paper pledge?

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Join us to explore classroom-ready lessons and resources that will help you teach about the ever increasing importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as the UDHR reaches its 70th anniversary this month.




As the world acknowledges the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a historic commitment to universal human rights, teachers have the opportunity to revisit the ideals stipulated in the UDHR and to guide their students to take a global temperature of its successes or shortcomings.

In the activities below, students will consider what it means to affirm the philosophical protection of human rights demonstrated in 1948, in light of the reality 70 years later. Students may justifiably question how strongly human rights are upheld by the global community when they see headlines in 2018 about migrants seeking asylum, ethnic minorities imprisoned or murdered, and democracies in decline. Yet they may also note more positive trends, including falling global infant mortality rates (though not in every country) and historic percentages of women serving in national legislatures.

Examining the UDHR itself will provide students with a framework for understanding both the progress that has been made since 1948 and the areas where we continue to fall short in protecting and promoting human rights. And this analysis can inspire and motivate students to dedicate themselves to the cause of human rights worldwide by promoting them in the “small places close to home,” which is where, according to Eleanor Roosevelt, they begin.

The following teaching ideas provide opportunities to explore the following questions:

  • What is a human right?
  • Who can best safeguard human rights?
  • How can students commit to uphold human rights?

(For more teaching ideas and background on the UDHR, view the lessons Defining Human Rights and Making Rights Universal.)

Reflect: What Is a Human Right?

Set the mood for thinking about human rights by using the Graffiti Board teaching strategy. On a whiteboard or butcher paper, call out Article I of the UDHR: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and provide the following prompt on the big paper:

I think a human right is. . .

Encourage students to silently jot down or draw as many responses they feel are appropriate and assure them that repetition is allowed.

Direct students to examine the graffiti board and consider:

  • What is a right, as opposed to a privilege?
  • What ideas were repeated by more than one class member? Why might students in your community value this?
  • What ideas pertain to basic necessities (food, shelter, health care, clean water)?
  • What ideas relate to the US Constitution (freedom of the press, political participation, nationality, other protections in the Bill of Rights), or to foundational documents in the country where you live?
  • What ideas reflect notions of a good quality of life (access to education and healthcare)?

Encourage students to privately define what universal human rights means to them in their notebooks.

Dig Deeper: What Are Human Rights According to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Select an appropriate version for your class’s reading level of the UDHR from the list below and use a modification of the Wraparound teaching strategy to guide students’ analysis. After students review the declaration, ask them to call out a phrase or article they find compelling. Allow students to participate without a set order for dramatic recitation.

(Note: The UN Human Rights Office is publishing comics of each UDHR article with Spirou Magazine which students may enjoy. It will take a few minutes to download.)

Ask students how the class’s graffiti board enumeration of human rights compared or contrasted to the UDHR. Clarify any articles of the document students do not understand.

Encourage students to revisit their notebook definition of a human right and allow them to modify it after reading a version of the UDHR.

Look at Human Rights Today

After examining the UDHR itself, students can turn their attention to today and observe how the human rights enumerated in the declaration are being promoted, protected, or contested.

Distribute pages 2–3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Facts and Figures. Have students read through the pages together in small groups and, using the 3-2-1 teaching strategy, identify together the following:

  • Three articles that have been successfully protected in the 70 years since its passage and how they’ve been protected
  • Two articles from the UDHR students fear are not being upheld and why
  • One article students would be interested in researching to understand how that universal right is being upheld or violated

Connect the UDHR to Recent Headlines

It is also worth engaging students in identifying the many ways that human rights are showing up in recent headlines. You might curate a collection of such recent news stories to share with students. The topics of the articles you collect might include:

  • Freedom of the press and the safety of journalists worldwide
  • Migration and refugee policies in Europe and at the United States southern border
  • Voting rights in recent elections in the United States and worldwide
  • Persecution of religious minorities, such as the Uighur in China and the Rohingya in Myanmar

You can find some suitable articles on these topics and more from our past Current Events teaching ideas. To find up-to-the-minute articles, consult our Current Events Classroom Checklist for a list of trusted news sources. Also, you can find leveled articles about some of these topics and others related to human rights on Newsela (free account required).

After you have collected the articles, you can have students analyze and share the articles using the Jigsaw teaching strategy. Students can meet in initial “expert” groups to discuss a single article and determine which rights in the UDHR are relevant in the story. Then, you can re-organize students into “teaching” groups where each member shares a different article from their previous group. Finish by leading a brief class discussion in which students discuss the patterns that they notice across the articles. In the discussion, you might ask students to name things they learned that are surprising, interesting, and troubling (S-I-T) from the patterns they noticed.

Consider Our Own Responsibilities

Show the short video Who Has to Uphold Human Rights? featuring Human Rights Watch’s Babatunde Olugboji. Ask students, in Olugboji’s view, who has the responsibility to safeguard human rights?

In small groups, prompt students to react to Olugboji’s comments. Have students brainstorm if and how human rights can be safeguarded in the way Olugboji articulated. What obstacles can students identify that might challenge the protection of human rights?

Finally, ask students to consider what role they play in protecting and promoting human rights for everyone. Share with them the #standup4humanrights pledge. Use the Think, Pair, Share strategy to engage students in a discussion of the following questions:

  • How does the pledge define each individual’s role in promoting human rights?
  • What does the statement “I will use my rights to stand up for your rights” mean? How does it define our obligations to others?

Give students the opportunity to take the pledge.

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