Making Rights Universal | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Eleanor Roosevelt sitting with two other men at a United Nations meeting in New York City

Making Rights Universal

Students analyse four rights in the UDHR and decide whether they are universal and enjoyed by all in the world today.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In the last lesson, students created working definitions for a right and then learned about the process by which representatives from nine countries, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, the chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights, drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was approved by the United Nations General Assembly on 10th December 1948. In this lesson, students will read a UDHR infographic that summarises the Preamble and 30 Articles of the UDHR and then work with a group to focus on four rights to decide if they are or are not universal and enjoyed by individuals and groups in the world today. After sharing their findings with their peers, students will discuss the potential and limitations of a document like the UDHR that has no binding legal agreement, as well as consider what responsibility, if any, nations who signed the UDHR have to protect the rights of their own people, as well as the rights of individuals and groups in other nations whose rights may have been violated. Finally, they will turn their attention inward to consider the meaning of rights in their own lives and communities in a personal journal response.

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

Is there such a thing as a universal human right? Are the rights in the UDHR universal?

  • Students will recognise that not every right included in the UDHR is realised by every individual and group in the world today.
  • Students will assess the efficacy of the UDHR and the responsibility of the nations who signed the document to protect the rights of its people, as well as people in other nations whose rights may be violated.

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

  • 3 activities
  • 1 image

While the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, members did not complete their mission of securing human rights around the world through the creation of a binding covenant that would require nations to align their laws with the points laid out in the treaty. Eleanor Roosevelt acknowledged that no part of the document could be enforced legally. But to place the emphasis on that fact was to underestimate the declaration’s power. Roosevelt made it clear that she and her colleagues had “great belief . . . in the force of documents which do express ideals.” They were aware that although words, ideas, and ideals may mean little by themselves, they hold great power when they are widely explained and accepted: “They carry no weight unless the people know them, unless the people understand them, unless the people demand that they be lived.” 1

Three quarters of a century after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the ideal of human rights is widely recognised, even as individuals’ rights are routinely violated around the world. Still, there is evidence of progress. Language from the UDHR has been written into the constitutions of a number of countries. More than 80 international declarations and treaties trace their origins to the UDHR, including the Convention Against Torture (1984) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). When countries ratify these and other treaties, they acknowledge human rights and accept a legal obligation to protect them. All United Nations member countries have ratified at least one of nine major human rights treaties, and many have ratified more. 2

  • 1Eleanor Roosevelt, “Making Human Rights Come Alive,” in What I Hope to Leave Behind: The Essential Essays of Eleanor Roosevelt, ed. Allida M. Black (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1995), 563.
  • 2The Foundation of International Human Rights Law,” United Nations, accessed June 1, 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.

The UDHR Infographic represents a summarised version of the Preamble and Articles 1–30 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because the original document contains complex vocabulary and syntax that might not be appropriate for your students’ reading level, this lesson asks students to work with the Infographic. It is important that your students understand that the handout represents a summary of the original document that captures the main idea but not the details of most of the articles.

This is the final lesson in the “Understanding Human Rights” section of this scheme of work. See the Unit Assessment for a project you can use to reinforce students learning on this theme after completing this lesson.

Making Rights Universal

Use these slides to help students analyse four rights in the UDHR and decide whether they are universal and enjoyed by all in the world today.

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


Take a few minutes at the start of class to share from some of the students’ exit cards from the last lesson. We recommend that you keep the students’ exit card responses anonymous unless they have given you permission in advance of the lesson to share their ideas.

  • If you feel that your students need additional historical context for the UDHR and its creation beyond what they learned in the last lesson, lead a brief mini-lecture, drawing information from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and/or the Context section from the lesson Defining Human Rights.
  • Then pass out and read aloud (using the popcorn or wraparound variations) the UDHR Infographic. Explain that this handout represents a summarised version of the Preamble and Articles 1-30 of the UDHR that was signed on 10th December 1948.
    • Divide the class into small groups and ask them to analyse the UDHR infographic by responding to the following questions:
    • Think back to the last lesson in which you were first introduced to the UDHR. Were the three rights that your group believed to be universal included in the infographic? Which ones are included? What is missing?
    • What three UDHR rights do you think are the most important?
    • What UDHR right most surprises you?
    • What right do you think is missing from the UDHR that should be included in a universal human rights document?
  • Tell students that they will now examine the UDHR to answer the question:

    Are these rights universal? That is to say, do you think these rights are enjoyed by every human being today?

  • First, model the kind of discussion you would like groups to engage in by selecting one of the rights to discuss as a class, for example, “No one has the right to hold you in slavery.” Ask the class if this right is universal and enjoyed by every human being today. If students mention human trafficking, for example, record it on the board and ask them who should be in a country’s universe of obligation and what responsibility governments and individuals have to ensure that no one is denied basic human rights.
  • Next, assign each group four rights from the UDHR to focus on in their discussion. It is okay if multiple groups have the same set of rights. Instruct students to read the first right out loud and discuss if this right is universal— if it is enjoyed by every human being today. If they think of examples of individuals or groups who do not enjoy this right, they should record them in their notes and then discuss where these individuals or groups fall within a government, nation, or world’s universe of obligation.
  • After groups have discussed their rights, ask each one to present about the right that they found most interesting or challenging to share with the class.
  • Then discuss the following questions as a class, in groups, or in pairs:
    • Why do you think some rights are only sometimes or never enjoyed by some people? What are the reasons for this? Does this suggest a problem with the rights included in the UDHR or a problem with the countries that don’t recognise them? Explain your reasoning.
    • What responsibility do nations who signed the UDHR have to ensure that these rights are realised by every person in their country?
    • What responsibility do nations who signed the UDHR have to the people in other countries if any of these rights are violated?
    • What is the power or potential of a document like the UDHR? What are its limitations? Is there value in having an agreement whose goals may seem difficult or even impossible to achieve? 
  • Reflect on the Human Rights and Your Community
    At the end of the lesson, ask students to reflect in their journals in response to the following prompt:

     Eleanor Roosevelt believed that human rights begin in “small places, close to home,” such as in neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces. What meaning do human rights have for you in your everyday life? Are human rights valued and protected in your school and community? How do you know

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