Defining Universal Human Rights | Facing History & Ourselves
 President Harry S. Truman with Eleanor Roosevelt on July 1, 1948, in Washington, DC.

Defining Universal Human Rights

Students consider what rights should belong to every human being on earth, create their own definition of a right, and learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


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At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In this lesson, 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. Students will first define a right and then reflect in their journals about the rights that they have, as well as rights that they don’t have but should, at home, at school, and in their communities. Then students will compare their definitions with UNESCO’s definition of a right and work with a group to reach a consensus about three human rights that they believe every person is entitled to enjoy. 

Finally, 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 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?
  • In what ways was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a response to the past? In what ways did it present a responsibility for future generations?
  • What fundamental rights and needs of people does a government have a responsibility to promote and protect?
  • Students will create a working definition for a right and then compare and contrast it to UNESCO’s definition. 
  • Students will record information about Eleanor Roosevelt’s 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-minute class period and includes:

  • 5 activities
  • 1 video
  • 1 extension activity

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 for all. 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 December 10, 1948, she urged the United Nations General Assembly to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):

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 today.

  • 1 Eleanor 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.
  • 2 Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Struggle for Human Rights,” speech delivered September 28, 1948, in Paris, France, American Rhetoric website, accessed June 26, 2016.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

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

In Activity 2, 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 multilayered, using less formal language and examples, and students can revisit and revise them as they learn more about a topic. 

Before teaching this lesson, preview the video and the steps of Project Zero’s Take Note Thinking Routine for Activity 3. You will need to decide how you would like students to respond during the routine (index cards, a handout, a Google Doc, a Padlet, etc.) and how they will share what they write with their peers and with you.

It is important that you preview this lesson’s materials and then decide what, if any, historical context you might need to provide. If you would like to create a mini-lecture to help frame the lesson in the context of World War II and its aftermath, you can draw on information from the first five paragraphs of the reading Introduction to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or assign the reading to your students. 

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

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Lesson Plans


Take a few minutes at the start of class to address any “coverage” issues for the concept of universe of obligation that emerged in the previous lesson’s exit cards.

  • Let students know that in this lesson, they will start to explore the concept of human rights. Begin with a journal entry in which students respond to a series of questions about their rights. Reveal the questions one at a time so that students have a chance to think and write about each one:
    • 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 but don’t feel like you do? 
  • Ask students to debrief in groups of three, adding any new ideas to their first “What is a right?” response. 

Then ask the small groups to create a “working definition” of right. Have a few groups share their definitions with the class, making note of the similarities and differences in their thinking.

  • Explain to students that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a United Nations agency that was founded after World War II to advance the goal of “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
  • Project UNESCO’s definition of a right and read it out loud two times. 

[a] 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.

  • Move students into small groups to discuss the following questions about the UNESCO definition: 
    • In what ways is the UNESCO definition similar to and different from your working definition of right?
    • If the United Nations asked your group to provide feedback about UNESCO’s definition, 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, race, ability, geography, history, politics, religion, etc.?  
  • 3 “UNESCO and the Declaration,” UNESCO website, accessed March 26, 2018.
  • Let students know that they will be watching 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 a right is and what rights should belong to every human being on earth. Explain the Take Note routine. Let students know that when it is time to reflect, they will respond in writing to ONE of the following questions. They should not take notes during the video so they can fully engage with the content. The Take Note questions are as follows: 
    • What is the most important point?
    • What are you finding challenging, puzzling, or difficult to understand?
    • What question would you most like to discuss?
    • What is something that you found interesting?


Facilitate a class discussion that explores the following questions: In what ways was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a response to the past? In what ways did it present a responsibility for future generations?

Close the lesson with a journal or exit ticket reflection in response to the following questions: 

  • What responsibility do individuals have to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected? 
  • What responsibility do communities have to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected?
  • What responsibility do governments have to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected?

Extension Activity 

Deepen students’ understanding about Eleanor Roosevelt’s development into an international social justice leader. Use the Sketch to Stretch strategy to have students reflect on the following 1962 quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt, using images, phrases, and words, in their journals: “It is essential, above all, that in making history we don’t forget to learn by history, to see our mistakes as well as our successes, our weaknesses as well as our strengths.” Then show the video Who Was Eleanor Roosevelt? (3:07), which recounts Roosevelt’s privileged childhood and outlines how she developed her social consciousness through her travels and work with immigrant communities in New York City. If time allows, you can also have students read The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes an excerpt from Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech urging the United Nations General Assembly to approve the UDHR. Students can draw connections across texts with a strategy like Connect, Extend, Challenge.

Materials and Downloads

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