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'It's my right': The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

To examine our assumption of human rights, and to see that these rights are not universal.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To examine our assumption of human rights, and to see that these rights are not universal.

Preparation and materials

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


  1. On 10 December 1948 a document was signed by the members of the fledgling United Nations Organization. This document claimed to speak for all of humanity in affirming the permanent rights of individuals.

    The idea of human rights was not new, however. Many nations, among them Britain, France and the United States, had pre-existing bills defining the liberties of their citizens. Yet the United Nations Organization, founded just three years earlier, had no such statement.
  2. The UN was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the primary aim of ensuring that such a conflict could never occur again. The UN Charter, the founding document of the UN, referred to the rights of citizens, yet did not explicitly define what these rights were. Thus the decision was made that a declaration of individual rights was necessary.
  3. The completed Universal Declaration of Human Rights consists of 30 Articles that form the basis of all international law.

    Article 1, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’ has become almost universally accepted with little dissent. Other Articles enshrine the rights of civilians not to be harassed by the state, to have a private life, not to be held in slavery, and to have the right to own property. Rights to education, equal pay for equal work, and asylum are also affirmed by the Declaration.
  4. When introduced to the General Assembly, the main parliament of the United Nations and the only one of its councils in which the vote of every member state has equal weight, the Declaration was ratified with 48 in favour, none against, and 8 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 over 60 years on, universal human rights are a long way off. Dictatorships which oppress their citizens are still widespread, and nations such as China, Iran and North Korea still commit widespread abuses. Even states with a commitment to the document, such as the United States and Britain, have begun to blur the boundaries, with Article 9, ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile’, being subverted in the fight against terrorism.

    Moreover, the Declaration is not legally binding and not easy to enforce.

    The attempts to introduce human rights in Iraq and Afghanistan have prompted opposition from local and international communities. It would seem 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. On the one hand, it is difficult to describe oppression simply as a cultural difference. On the other hand, Western values can be seen as tools of oppression and colonialism.
  7. As I speak, no one has yet found a satisfactory solution to this quagmire, and so the best thing to do is judge for oneself.

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.


Lord God,
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 2012   (Vol.14 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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