What role does culture play in the way people think about rights and responsibilities?What is a universal right? The activities below will help students think critically about those questions through a discussion of criticism of the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights. Students will analyze the articles of the UDHR and reflect on whether the natures of the rights laid out in those articles.
This lesson is part of Facing History and Ourselves Universal Deceleration of Human Rights collection and part of a series of lessons about the declaration. Use this lesson at the end of a study of the UDHR to engage students in a conversation about the universality of human rights.
Students will analyze the articles of the UDHR and reflect on whether the natures of the rights laid out in those articles.
In 1947, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) wrote a "Statement on Human Rights" in response to the drafting of the UDHR. The statement asks, "How can the proposed Declaration be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in countries of Western Europe and America?" The AAA questions whether any document can be universal, since individuals, it explains, cannot exist outside of their own culture; an individual could not have an identity separate from their cultural identity. In this document, the AAA asks, in this case, whether the document can be universal if it reflects values of Western Europe and America? 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. Human Rights scholar Mary Ann Glendon explains:
[The idea of 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.
Are the Rights in the UDHR Universal? Always, Usually, Never?
Is there such a thing as a "universal" right or are all rights inherently culturally relative? Philosophers have long debated whether any rights are universal, across time, geography, language, and culture.
Read each of the 30 articles (rights) in the UDHR and consider whether they are: "always," "usually," or "never" considered universal for all people. In small groups, cut a paper copy of the UDHR into strips with one article on each strip. Then, on chart paper, sketch large concentric circles and label them "always," "usually," "never". Read each article, clarify its meaning and discuss where that right belongs on the chart. At the end of the exercise, groups might debrief their choices and rationales and consider: Were there any rights that a group decided would "sometimes" or "never" be universal? What were the reasons for this? What do these decisions say about the universality of the UDHR?