The New Planet. What Are Human Rights?
This module aims to introduce children and young people to human rights. Its content should help students understand the importance of human rights as a prerequisite for the existence of functioning democratic civil societies.
Short description of the session
This session aims to teach children and young people about human rights. The pupils will understand that human rights are rights of individuals and that the state authorities have the main responsibility to respect, promote and fulfil human rights. We should all respect the rights of others and make use of our own rights to participate actively to develop our societies. Respect for human rights is a prerequisite for creating well-functioning and peaceful democracies.
- Make the pupils reflect on which rules should be in force in a society, so that people can live good lives
- Make the pupils learn about the different human rights and the origin and content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
- Make the pupils understand that the ultimate goal of human rights is to create good societies for all people without discrimination
- Time: 1–4 hours (depending on how in-depth the teacher wants to go, and whether he/she wants to include lectures)
- Requirements: A large room with ample space for group work, large sheets of paper, markers and paper, a copy of the Universal Declaration (simplified version) for each participant. If showing film, a computer, projector and loudspeakers are needed.
- Preparation: A lecture about the origin and the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). To get familiar with the different human rights.
Activity: The New Planet
Which rules and values should be in force so that people can live good lives in a society? The group work makes the pupils reflect upon important values and prepares them for learning about human rights.
- The teacher organises small groups (3–5 participants) and introduces the task:
A catastrophe has taken place on Earth and all life has been wiped out. You are the only fortunate people to get on board a spaceship that is on its way to an entirely new planet. The planet strongly resembles Earth, with mountains, water, plains, oceans and atmosphere, nature and animals. The only thing missing is people. You are the first human beings on the planet. But afterwards, you know that many will settle there – thousands, maybe millions. However, as the first people, you have the privilege to decide what rules shall be in force. Each group must agree on 10 rules that will apply to all people so that they can live good lives. The rules must be written down on a big piece of paper. You can decide on a name for the new planet (20–30 min).
- Everyone comes together in a plenary session where the groups present their planets. During the presentations, the teacher shall encourage discussion and in-depth reflection on the different rules. The teacher can pay special attention to rules that have to do with human dignity, equality, respecting others and non-discrimination, as these represent fundamental values behind the notion of human rights. Why are these rules and values so important? The process will reveal that many of the group’s rules have similarities to, and the same intentions as, modern human rights.
- The teacher concludes that the group work, in a way, resembles the negotiating process that the UN Human Rights Commission undertook after the Second World War, where state representatives from all over the world agreed on some basic human rights that should apply to all people everywhere. The war with its more than 55 million victims had created a need for all countries to agree on some fundamental rights that people all over the world should be entitled to.
- After the group work, the teacher tells the exciting story about the origin and content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The lecture must be adapted to the age of the group.
- Afterwards, everyone receives a copy of the Universal Declaration1 and is told to return to their initial small groups. The task now is to compare their own planet’s rules with the articles in the Universal Declaration. Which articles regulate the same issues as their own rules? The articles’ numbers should be written alongside the planets’ rules (20–30 min).
- Everyone returns again to the plenary session for a summary. The participants will have discovered that many of their own rules are in accord with the content of the Universal Declaration. Why is this so? What do the participants think? This is a good opportunity to look in more detail at a number of the articles and become more familiar with them.
- One main conclusion is that the international human rights represent values and norms that are common to human societies worldwide. Human rights connect to human needs that can be said to be the same all over the world. When the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948, the UN member states declared that they would work to protect and promote human rights. This became the foundation for today’s extensive international human rights regime.
- Why is it important that people reflect upon which rules should be in force in a society for people to live good lives?
Tips for the teacher:
- Sometimes the pupils can ‘critique’ other groups’ questions about rules in the plenary, when they present their planets. The teacher should underline that the short time (30 minutes) makes it impossible to think about all rules and regulations that could be in force. On this basis, pupils should be respectful of each other, show good will and have a positive attitude.
- Sometimes, after the groups have presented their planets, the teacher can be asked which planet he/she likes the most. This is a good opportunity to underline that the aim of the group work is not to identify the ‘best’ planet. On the contrary, the aim is to learn from each other. The ‘best’ planet will be the one which includes the best rules from all the groups. This point can also illustrate how democracy works. Everyone should be invited to reflect, have a say, and be listened to. After discussion, it is possible to reach a compromise that everyone can respect.
- A good tip is to include a film about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- If the group wants to learn more, for older students, the teacher can hold a lecture on how the international human rights system has developed since 1948. The lecture must be adapted to the age of the participants.
- Film: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN)
- Article: Human Dignity and Human Rights (by Lillian Hjorth)
- Article: The Lowest Common Denominator – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (by Lillian Hjorth)
Introduction to human rights (for the teacher)
In today’s world it is almost impossible to open a newspaper or see the evening news without human rights being mentioned. Often, violations and abuses are in focus. Even if human rights have become part of our modern vocabulary, many of us do not know what they really are. How do they function and how can they influence our societies?
Human rights are fundamental rights that every human being is entitled to. The underlying ethical values behind the vision of human rights are human dignity and equality. The idea that all human beings are entitled to some fundamental human rights dates far back into history. The need for people to formulate human rights grew out of the need to protect individuals from arbitrary abuse, violations and discrimination perpetrated by those in power. In the modern notion of human rights, the states have the main responsibility to respect, promote and protect human rights for their populations.
It is important for all people to know about human rights in order to claim them. But just as important as claiming our own rights is respecting the rights of others.
The UN and universal human rights
The atrocities that occurred during the Second World War, with a total loss of more than 55 million people, led to the establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945. The Nazi concentration camps and the systematic discrimination and killings of Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals and other groups were factors behind the UN decision that human rights should be an important part of the mandate of the new global organisation. Hence, the UN Charter clearly speaks of promoting and encouraging respect for human rights for all people without discrimination.
To define the content of the different human rights, the UN established a Human Rights Commission in 1946. The aim was to draft an ‘International Bill of Rights’. The Commission consisted of 18 state representatives from all over the world, all with different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. The remaining UN member countries (38 at the time) could comment and submit their own proposals. It was a difficult negotiating process to agree on the content, but on 10 December 1948, in Paris, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as a common standard of rights for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time in history, some fundamental human rights that are to be universally protected. The Declaration consists of a preamble and 30 articles, setting forth the human rights to which all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled to, without any discrimination.
Article 1 lays down the philosophy on which the Declaration is based when it underlines that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Article 2 sets out the basic principle of equality and forbids discrimination of any kind, for example on the basis of colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin and so forth.
Article 3 proclaims the right to life, liberty and security of person – a right which is essential to the enjoyment of all other rights.
Articles 4 to 21 define civil and political rights, whereas Articles 22 to 27 define economic, social and cultural rights. Articles 28 to 30 recognise that everyone is entitled to a social and international order, in which the human rights set forth in the Declaration may be fully realised.
The Universal Declaration is generally agreed to be the foundation of international human rights law. It has been translated into over 520 languages and holds the Guinness World record as the most translated document.
Legally binding human rights documents
As a declaration, the UDHR had no legal binding force for the states when it was adopted in 1948. Thus, the Human Rights Commission continued to work with the aim of developing legally binding human rights treaties (often called covenants or conventions). In 1966 the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights were adopted. The two Covenants, together with the Universal Declaration, form the so-called International Bill of Human Rights. A series of international human rights treaties and other adopted instruments have expanded the body of international human rights law since then.
International human rights law lays down obligations which the states are bound to respect. By becoming parties to the legally binding treaties, states authorities assume obligations and duties to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights2.
There are ten core UN international human rights conventions today. Their aims are e.g. to protect individuals from racial discrimination, torture and degrading treatment, and vulnerable groups like women, children, disabled and migrants from abuse and human rights violations.
The UN and other international organisations are working constantly to ensure that the states are implementing the agreed-upon human rights for their citizens. Most important is to get the states to legally bind themselves to the treaties, and to put in place domestic measures and legislation. National laws must harmonise with the human rights obligations in the conventions. Through information and education, state officials at all levels must learn to respect and implement human rights. Children should learn about human rights in schools, and institutions like human rights ombudsman’s offices can be established. Another obligation for the governments is regularly (often every fifth year) to report to the UN treaty bodies on how they have implemented their obligations. Today more than 85 % of the UN member states have legally bound themselves (ratified) to more than four of the core human rights conventions. All states have ratified at least one. This shows that the international human rights regime today has universal support. In addition to the global UN human rights regime, regional human rights systems have developed in various parts of the world. Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Arab world have developed their own treaties and systems3.
The Civil Society – all of us!
‘Civil Society’ is a term that is often used when talking about democracy and human rights. It encompasses the many stakeholders in a society that are outside the governmental power structures. Some of the most important are the non-governmental organisations (NGOs). There are thousands of national and international human rights organisations all over the world who work to improve the situation for vulnerable groups such as refugees, children, persons with special needs, sexual minorities, elderly and others. Free and independent media is also among the most valuable institutions in democratic societies and an important actor in promoting human rights. It is only through TV, radio, newspapers and the internet that people can become aware of human rights violations. Such information is a prerequisite for people to organise and do something about the problems.
Last but not least, it must be underlined that we all can contribute in different ways to improve the human rights situation in our own societies. It is essential that we all must respect other people’s rights. Nobody should be discriminated. We can also become members of NGOs, participate in campaigns and demonstrations, and write articles for online and traditional media newspapers about what we feel are important challenges. On a daily basis, it is important to discuss with friends and family, listen to others and say our opinions. We all influence each other! Human rights are important when it comes to both claiming our own rights and protecting the rights of others. They are not given to us once and for all but must be protected and fought for every day.
‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’
How to use the museums
Many museums can be visited in order to increase pupils knowledge about human rights and create awareness. Historical museums and museums that use historical perspectives in their exhibitions, as well as museums that focus on minorities, are especially well-suited for human rights education.
The pupils can work in groups or individually with different tasks. They can work on a topic for shorter or longer periods. They can write essays or prepare presentations for the others in the classroom and open up for questions and discussions.
— Compare the human rights situation for different groups in different times before and now (children/women/ ethnic minorities/sexual minorities/disabled/others)
— Analyse the situation for specific rights before and now (the right to life, not being tortured, the rights to education, to marry, freedom of religion and/or life stance, the right to work, etc.)
— How have minorities been treated (before and now) by society as such and/or by the authorities?
— Have the minorities enjoyed the same human rights as the majority, or have they been discriminated? Why?
— Do they enjoy the same human rights as the majority today, or are they still discriminated? Why?
— Has the development concerning human rights protection for individuals and groups improved over time? Why?
— What can we do to stop discrimination?
The result will very often show that the human rights situation for many groups and individuals has improved over the years. Follow-up questions can be: Why has the situation improved? Is it because the general knowledge of the population has increased as a result of better education? Has the work of activists been important? What can be other important factors?
- In many countries the Universal Declaration exists in simplified versions. School children below 16 years old should get the simplified version to work with.
- The duty to respect means that state authorities must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights. The duty to protect means that state authorities must protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses. The duty to fulfil means that state authorities must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.
- In addition to the convention system’s juridical mechanisms, the UN and other international organizations can use political pressure to influence states to respect human rights. Resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly, the Security Council and the Human Rights Council are examples of such measures.