Complicating the Universality of Human Rights | Facing History & Ourselves
Eleanor Roosevelt sitting with two other men at a United Nations meeting in New York City

Complicating the Universality of Human Rights

Students examine the tensions that emerged between nations with different cultures, values, and systems of beliefs when drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and will then consider the consequences of a world that cannot agree on universal rights for all people. 


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At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

Because of the text complexity and the understanding students need to have of global politics at the outbreak of the Cold War, this lesson is most appropriate for students in grades 11 and 12. If you are teaching younger students, you can skip ahead to the next lesson, Making Rights Universal. 

In the last lesson, students 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). The document was approved by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Over the course of almost three years of sometimes contentious negotiations, representatives from Asia, Europe, North and South America, and the Middle East (most of Africa was still ruled by colonial powers) debated not only cultural issues but politics as they tried to find common ground. 

In this lesson, students will consider the challenges that Roosevelt and members of the commission faced in enumerating the rights of every person on this planet. To understand the tensions that emerged between nations with different cultures, values, and systems of beliefs, students will examine a range of perspectives that the commission took into account when drafting the UDHR and will then consider the consequences of a world that cannot agree on universal rights for all people.

  • What is a right
  • What rights should belong to every human being on earth?
  • What are the challenges of creating a human rights document that represents a universal view?
  • What are the potential consequences if the world cannot agree on universal rights?
  • Students will identify similarities and differences between how the nations drafting the UDHR prioritized individual versus collective rights. 
  • Students will reflect on the consequences of a world that cannot agree on universal human rights. 

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

  • 4 activities
  • 1 handout

The Human Rights Commission, composed of 18 United Nations members representing different political, religious, and national backgrounds, met for the first time in January 1947. During this session, its members debated the relationship between the individual and society. The debate was not an abstract one. On one side were delegates whose systems of government placed individuals at the center and sought to ensure their freedoms from interference by the state. On the other side were delegates from countries whose systems of government emphasized the importance of society over the individual. In between the two camps were delegates, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who endorsed a compromise between these seemingly opposing views. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, in particular, sharpened disagreements about individual freedoms and government power.

In February 1947, John Humphrey, a Canadian who also served as the permanent head of the United Nations Division of Human Rights, and his staff were tasked with writing a preliminary draft of an International Bill of Rights. The Drafting Committee was later enlarged to include the members of the Commission on Human Rights for Australia, China, Chile, France, Lebanon, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. 1 This process involved extensive research of “all the world’s existing constitutions and rights instruments, as well as suggestions that had poured in to the Secretariat from members of the Commission, outside organizations, and even from various interested individuals.” 2 At the same time, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) set up a Committee on the Theoretical Bases of Human Rights to study the world’s cultures, sending questionnaires to experts around the globe. Replies from scholars, philosophers, and political activists indicated that some rights were protected by all cultures. 

While few challenged the UNESCO study’s basic conclusion that the idea of human rights was universal, criticisms quickly arose. What was the basis for human rights? When and how did the concept of human rights originate? Some critics of the document began to suggest that any search for universal traits would obscure the diversity of cultures around the world. However powerful these arguments were, World War II and the Holocaust had shown the danger of accepting one group’s claim to superiority over others. Many held that in the aftermath of such events, the need to protect what individuals did share trumped the safeguarding of differences between cultures. 

The UDHR is based on the belief that there is something basic and universal (across time, geography, language, and culture) that connects all human beings. As Mary Ann Glendon, the US ambassador to the Vatican and the author of A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, explains, the universality of human rights

is an idea that comes out of Western traditions, but even though that idea and the form and style can be said to be Western, it is impressive that in 1947 and 1948 representatives of Asian cultures, nine countries with predominantly Muslim populations, along with Latin America, Europe and the United States—all those representatives were able to sign on to those principles as universals. 3

  • 1 “Drafters of the Declaration,” United Nations website, accessed March 24, 2022.
  • 2 Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001), 56.
  • 3 “Mary Ann Glendon and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Facing History and Ourselves video.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Before teaching this lesson, familiarize yourself with the Barometer teaching strategy and hang two signs on either side of the classroom that say Individual Rights and Collective Rights.

Activity 2 includes a Big Paper activity. Before teaching this lesson, familiarize yourself with the Big Paper: Building a Silent Conversation strategy and then prepare by enlarging and printing the quotations on the Perspectives on Human Rights: Big Paper Quotations handout and affixing them to six pieces of big paper. 

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Lesson Plan


  • Explain that when drafting the UDHR, the Human Rights Commission, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, began with a single question: What should take precedence, individual rights or collective needs? Asked another way, are there individual human rights that take precedence over the policies or declarations of any nation? Are there communal needs that might take precedence over the rights of an individual?
  • Invite students to engage with this question, first in a journal response and then in a discussion that uses the Barometer strategy. 
  • Depending on students’ familiarity with the Human Rights Commission, you might share key points from this lesson’s Context section in a mini-lecture. Then let students know that they will read and reflect on different perspectives from nations, scholars, and organizations that the Human Rights Commission took into account while preparing to draft, and while drafting, the UDHR.
  • Explain the Big Paper strategy. Provide students with markers and give them time to circulate silently, read, annotate, and write on each paper (see the Notes to Teachers section for details about preparing for this activity by printing the quotations in the Perspectives on Human Rights: Big Paper Quotations handout). Project the following questions for students to refer to as they interact with the quotations:
    • What rights does the speaker of each quotation emphasize—individual, collective, both, neither? How do you know?
    • What does each quotation reveal about the values held by the speaker?
    • Is it possible to create a document that represents a universal view? 

Hang the papers on the board so that students can see them alongside one another. Then discuss the following questions as a class:

  • Where do you see similarities across the six perspectives? Where do you see differences?
  • Do you think it is ever necessary for a person to give up certain rights for the benefit of their community? What happens when one person’s individual liberties impose on those of other people in their community?
  • What are the challenges of creating a human rights document that represents a universal view? What makes you say that?
  • What are the potential consequences if the world cannot agree on universal rights?

End the lesson by asking students to reread the journal responses they wrote at the beginning of the lesson. Then ask them to respond to the following question in their journals: 

  • What new, different, or deeper understanding do you have about the tension that can exist between an individual’s rights and the needs of the larger community? 
  • How did you come to this understanding?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

Students use the following handout in this lesson.   

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