Making Rights Universal | Facing History & Ourselves
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Making Rights Universal

Students read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and discuss whether these rights are universal and enjoyed by individuals and groups in the world today. 


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At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students considered the challenges that Eleanor Roosevelt and members of the Human Rights Commission faced in drafting a global bill of human rights, given nations’ different priorities, values, and cultures. In this lesson, students will consider an infographic that summarizes the UDHR’s Preamble and Articles 1–30 and will then evaluate whether these rights are universal and enjoyed by individuals and groups in the world today. 

Students will also discuss the potential and the limitations of a document like the UDHR, which is not a binding legal agreement, and they will examine the question of 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 that may have been violated. Finally, students will turn their attention inward to consider the meaning of rights in their own lives and communities.

  • What is a right
  • What rights should belong to every human being on earth?
  • Is there such a thing as a universal human right? 
  • Are the rights in the UDHR universal?
  • Students will recognize that not every right included in the UDHR is realized 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 their people as well as people in other nations whose rights may be violated.

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

  • 4 activities
  • 1 infographic

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 recognized, even as individuals’ rights are routinely violated around the world. 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 (1987) 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

  • 1 Eleanor 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.
  • 2 “The Foundation of International Human Rights Law,” United Nations website, accessed June 1, 2016.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

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

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

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Lesson Plan


Start by asking students to identify one right that they think every human on earth is entitled to. Have students share their ideas in a Wraparound format. Write their ideas on the board as they share, placing a check mark by those that get repeated. Then invite students to discuss what they notice (repeated rights, surprising rights, interesting rights). 

  • Now that students have shared some of the rights they think everyone is entitled to, let them know that they will be reading and discussing a summarized version of the Preamble and Articles 1–30 of the UDHR, which was signed on December 10, 1948. 
  • Pass out the read aloud (using the “popcorn” or “wraparound” variation) and the UDHR Infographic. Divide the class into small groups and ask them to analyze the infographic by responding to the following questions:
    • What three UDHR rights do you think are the most important? What makes you say that?
    • 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, such as “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 or five rights from the UDHR to focus on in their discussion (it is fine for multiple groups to have the same set of rights). Instruct students to read the first right out loud and discuss whether this right is universal—whether it is enjoyed by every human being today. If students think of examples of individuals or groups who do not enjoy this right, they should record these in their notes and then discuss where these individuals or groups fall within a government’s, a nation’s, or the world’s universe of obligation. 
  • After groups have discussed their rights, ask each to present to the class the right that they found most interesting or challenging. 
  • Then discuss the following questions as a class or in groups:
    • Why do you think some rights are only sometimes, or are never, enjoyed by some people? Does this suggest a problem with the rights included in the UDHR or a problem with the countries that don’t recognize them? Explain your reasoning.
    • What responsibility do nations who signed the UDHR have to ensure that these rights are realized 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?

Use Project Zero’s The 3 Whys thinking routine to have students reflect in their journals on the UDHR’s preamble and 30 articles and draw connections to their own lives and the world around them.

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