Lesson 2 of 11

Universe of Obligation

From the Unit:

Overview

The activities below will help students reflect on the idea of a “universe of obligation,” or the individuals and groups toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends. In this exercise, students will consider their own universes of obligation, as well as those of groups and nations to which they belong.

This lesson is part of Facing History and Ourselves' Universal Declaration of Human Rights collection and part of a series of lessons about the declaration. Use this lesson at the beginning of a study of the UDHR to engage students in a conversation about how individuals and nations define their responsibilities towards other peoples.

Context

In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, individuals, groups, and nations began reevaluate the responsibility they felt toward others. The horrors of World War II, the new and frightening power of the atomic bomb, and the Nazi genocide of Jews and of others deemed unworthy to live shocked the conscience of people all over the world in 1945. As First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt said, "In the end...we are 'One World' and that which injures any one of us, injures all of us."1

After the war, diplomats and politicians created not only the United Nations as an international organization, but also the Nuremberg Trials, the Genocide Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the hope of preventing future atrocities. Each of these initiatives aimed to redefine the responsibilities of all governments and individuals toward other people in the world; they required a shift in the way people and nations understand what sociologist Helen Fein calls their "universe of obligation." Fein defines this important concept as the circle of individuals and groups "toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for [amends]".2 Her ideas refer specifically to how nations perceive their responsibilities to citizens.

Citations

  • 1 : Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day, December 22, 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project Website, George Washington University, http://tinyurl.com/63lslu , accessed October 24, 2008.
  • 2 : Margot Stern Strom. Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior Resource Book.(Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves, 1994),56.

Materials

Activities

Like nations, individuals develop their own universes of obligation and responsibility. Have students complete a Universe of Obligation for themselves.

  • Who is in your "universe of responsibility?"
  • What individuals and groups might you include?
  • Where would your universe of obligation begin? Where might it end?
  • Under what conditions might your universe of responsibility shift?
  • In whose universe of responsibility do you reside?
  • How do individuals, groups, and nations demonstrate their universes of obligation or responsibility?
  • In these conversations, consider the following: What is the difference between a right and a responsibility?
  • To what extent is there a difference between a nation's "universe of obligation" and that of individuals and groups?

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Unit

Lesson 1 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Examining the Immediate Historical Context

Through a timeline activity, students learn how World War II and the Holocaust shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lesson 2 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Universe of Obligation

To prepare for a deep study of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, students explore the idea of the “the universe of obligation.”

Lesson 3 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

A Negotiated Document

By comparing multiple versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, students gain insight into the motives of those who crafted it.

Lesson 4 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

What is a Right?

Through a close reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, students analyze the rights and responsibilities the document lays out for people around the world.

Lesson 5 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Fulfilling the Dream

Students explore the challenges and logistics of enforcing the articles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lesson 6 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Legacy, Judgment, and Memory

Students consider the legacies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the world today and discuss how they think its success should be measured.

Lesson 7 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Universal Rights

Students question whether the rights laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are truly universal, and how time, geography, language, and culture impact this.

Lesson 8 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Human Rights and Educating Global Citizens

Students question how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights impacts the way they see themselves as citizens of the global community.

Lesson 9 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Teaching Youth the Values of the UDHR

Students challenge their comprehension of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by rewriting the document for a younger audience.

Lesson 10 of 11
Justice & Human Rights

Creating a Better World

Students devise a creative way to present their plan for pursuing the dream of universal human rights today.

Lesson 11 of 11
Holocaust

A World Made New: Human Rights After the Holocaust

Students explore the historical basis for the modern human rights movement by examining the codes of ancient societies.

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