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'It's my right!'

To examine our assumption of rights, and see that it is not universal.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To examine our assumption of rights, and see that it is not universal.

Preparation and materials

  • You could download photos of demonstrations from a news website.
  • You might like to play ‘They dance alone’ by Sting as the students gather. This track refers to those lost in Chile during the time of the Pinochet regime.


  1. On 10 December 1948 a document was signed by the members of the new, fledgling United Nations organization. This document claimed to speak for all of humanity and affirmed the permanent rights of individuals. This idea of human rights was not new, however. Many nations, among them Britain, France and the United States, had pre-existing laws defining the liberties of their citizens.
  2. The UN was formed in the aftermath of World War Two, with the primary aim of ensuring that such a conflict could never occur again. The UN charter, the founding document of the organization, referred to the rights of citizens, but did not explicitly define what these rights were. Thus the decision was made that a universal declaration of individual rights was necessary.

  3. The completed declaration on human rights consists of 30 Articles that form the basis for all international law. Article 1 – ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ – has become almost universally accepted with little dissent. Other Articles enshrine the rights of civilians to not be harassed by the state, to have a private life, to not be held in slavery, and to have the rights to property. Rights to education, equal pay for equal work and asylum are also guaranteed by the Declaration.

  4. When the Declaration was introduced to the General Assembly, the main parliament of the United Nations and the only one in which every member state has equal weight, it was ratified with 48 in favour and none against; there were eight abstentions (the Soviet Union and allies, South Africa and Saudi Arabia). It thus became UN policy to pursue the rights set out in the Declaration.

  5. Despite this, it is clear that, 60 years on, universal human rights are a long way off. Dictatorships still oppress their citizens, and nations such as China, Iran and North Korea still commit widespread abuses. Even states with a commitment to the Declaration, such as the United States and Britain, have begun to blur the boundaries: Article 11 – ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile’ – is being subverted in the fight against terrorism. Moreover, this Article is not an easy one to enforce.

    Attempts to introduce human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan have prompted opposition from local and international communities. It would seem that there is a contradiction between the UN’s peaceful stance and its commitment to the rights of the oppressed.

  6. Some have criticized the Declaration for being an enshrinement of western culture and values, which fails to take into account the cultural differences between states and instead assumes that the values of Europe and America should be the values of the world. If this is the case then the idea of universal human rights has failed and never could have succeeded.

    This question of the clash of civilizations is one of the defining issues of modern times and is not one which will be solved any time soon. It can be seen as difficult to describe oppression as a cultural difference. On the other hand, western values can be seen as tools of oppression and colonialism.

  7. As we speak, no one has yet found a satisfactory solution to this quagmire, and so the best thing to do is come up with one’s own judgement.

Time for reflection

We take our rights so much for granted:

The right to speak out against our government.

The right to practise a religion.

The right to live without interference from the state.

The right to an education.

The right to vote for our government.

What other rights do we live with all the time, and take for granted?

(Take a few suggestions and affirm those rights.)



Take a moment of quiet to reflect on what our lives would be like if just one of those rights were to be removed.

We give thanks for all those working to maintain and increase human rights throughout the world.

Help me never to take my rights for granted, and to work to maintain and increase those rights for others.


Publication date: May 2008   (Vol.10 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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