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?
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.
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