Defining Human Rights | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
A black and white photo of Eleanor Roosevelt holding a large copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish.

Defining Human Rights

Students create a definition for a "right" in order to explore the challenges faced by the UN Commission on Human Rights to create an international framework of rights for all human beings.


One 50-min class period


English — UK


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.


About This Lesson

In this lesson and the next, students will consider what rights should belong to every human being on earth, as well as the challenges of trying to create an international framework of rights for all. First, students will define a right and then reflect in their journals about the rights that they feel they have, and those that they don’t have but should, at home, school, and in their communities. Then students will compare their definitions with the 1947 UNESCO definition of a right and work with a group to reach a consensus about three human rights they feel every person is entitled to enjoy. Next, students will learn how the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, grappled with these same questions as UN representatives worked together to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in the aftermath of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust.

What is a right? What rights should belong to every human being on earth?

How did the international community decide upon a universal set of human rights?

  • Students will create a working definition for a right and then compare and contrast it to UNESCO’s 1947 definition.
  • Students will record information about Eleanor Roosevelt’s inspiration behind, and role in, the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Students will identify three universal human rights and explain their importance.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 1 video

The devastation of World War II sparked an international desire for peace. It also encouraged the attempt to create a system of principles that could ensure the protection of basic human rights and dignity. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was one of the first American delegates to the United Nations, which was founded in 1945. A longtime activist on behalf of minorities, women, workers, and refugees, Roosevelt became the Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights. She worked with a small group of representatives from countries around the world to define the most essential universal rights and to establish them in an official document. On 10th December 1948, she urged the United Nations General Assembly to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In giving our approval to the Declaration today, it is of primary importance that we keep clearly in mind the basic character of the document. It is not a treaty; it is not an international agreement. It is not and does not purport to be a statement of law or of legal obligation. It is a Declaration of basic principles of human rights and freedoms, to be stamped with the approval of the General Assembly by formal vote of its members, and to serve as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations. 1

The UDHR was drafted and approved by a large group of international representatives. In order to bring this group to agreement, Eleanor Roosevelt painstakingly facilitated a process that would reflect a shared vision from the diverse perspectives of committee members; representatives including Charles Malik of Lebanon, P. C. Chang of China, and René Cassin of France negotiated carefully to ensure that their values were reflected in the document and that the document could speak for all people. They repeatedly asked, "Does this reflect our interests well enough? Does it speak for others as well?"

The United Nations approved the declaration, but the work of the commission was only partially done. The UDHR, in Roosevelt’s words, “would say to the peoples of the world ‘this is what we hope human rights may mean to all people in the years to come.’” The second part of the commission’s work was to be “a covenant which would be in the form of a treaty to be presented to the nations of the world.” Every nation that ratified the treaty “would then be obligated to change its laws wherever they did not conform to the points contained in the covenant.” 2

The commission thought a treaty might be worked out within the next few years, but this hope proved to be too optimistic. The work to secure human rights around the world remains an ongoing struggle.

  • 1Eleanor Roosevelt, “On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” in Great Speeches by American Women, ed. James Daley (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008), 128–29.
  • 2Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Struggle for Human Rights,” speech delivered 28 September 1948, in Paris, France, American Rhetoric website, accessed June 26, 2016.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

In this lesson, students will use their journal responses to help them construct a “working definition,” which is a less formal way of explaining what a word means. Unlike dictionary definitions, working definitions are often multi-layered, using less formal language and examples, and students can revisit and revise them as they learn more about a topic.

While this lesson’s Context section provides background information about the formation of the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, your students do not have to have studied this time period to engage with the content and activities in this lesson and the next. It is important that you preview this lesson’s materials and then decide what, if any, historical context you might want to provide before showing the video in Activity 3. If you would like to create a mini-lecture for your students to help frame the lesson in the context of World War II and its aftermath, you might draw on information from the first five paragraphs of the reading Introduction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Defining Human Rights

Use these slides to help students consider what rights should belong to every human being on earth, as well as the challenges of creating an international framework of rights.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lessons plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic media and prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans


  • For this journal entry, students will respond to a series of questions about their rights. Reveal the questions one at a time so students have a chance to think and write about each one before seeing the next question.
    • What is a right?
    • What rights do you have in your home?
    • What rights do you have at school?
    • What rights do you have in your community?
    • What rights do you think you should have in your home, school, or community but don’t feel that you do?
  • Ask students to debrief in a Think, Pair, Share, adding ideas to their “What is a right?” response if they agree with something their partner wrote but they didn’t think about at the time.
  • Then ask students to work with their partner to create a “working definition” for right and share it with another pair of students or with the class.
  • Project the following definition of right and explain to students that in 1947, the United Nations Economic and Social Committee (UNESCO), a United Nations agency that was founded in 1946 to advance “. . . peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for human rights and fundamental freedoms, 3 ” defined a right as: . . . condition of living, without which . . . men cannot give the best of themselves as active members of the community because they are deprived of the means to fulfill themselves as human beings.
  • Ask students to work in small groups to answer the following questions about the UNESCO definition of right:
    • In what ways is the UNESCO definition similar to and different from your working definition of right?
    • Do you think the UNESCO definition is too broad, too narrow, or just right?
    • If the United Nations asked your group to provide them with feedback about UNESCO’s definition of a right, what would you suggest?
    • What are three rights that your group unanimously believes are "universal"—that apply to all people from every cultural and political background? Why are these rights important to everyone regardless of age, gender, geography, history, politics, religion, etc.?
  • Tell students that they will now watch a video to learn about the process by which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted by representatives of nine countries in the United Nations, who also grappled with the question of what is a right and what rights should belong to every human being on earth.
  • Play the video Fundamental Freedoms: Eleanor Roosevelt, the Holocaust, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (09:15). Pause the video 2–3 times so students can capture what they learned in a 3-2-1 response without missing any of the images that help tell the story of the historical events leading to the creation of the UDHR.
  • 3: Details about what inspired Eleanor Roosevelt’s work
  • 2: Challenges UN members faced writing the UDHR
  • 1: Question about the UDHR or the process of creating it
  • Debrief the video by completing three wraparounds. For each round, students share a phrase from their 3-2-1 responses, starting with details that inspired Eleanor Roosevelt’s work in round one.

Ask student to respond to the following questions on an exit card that they will submit at the end of the lesson. They will be building off of these ideas in the next lesson.

  • Who is responsible for protecting people’s fundamental rights?
  • What responsibility do individuals have to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected? What responsibility do governments have to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected? What makes you say that?
  • Who should be included in a country’s universe of obligation? Anyone in the country at a given time? Residents of the country? Citizens of the country?

Materials and Downloads

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