9 Inspiration: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UN building with many different flags

In this course, you will use as your guide an important historical document from the United Nations. It’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Before you look at the document itself, start by thinking about what people mean when they say human rights.

What are human rights?

The basic idea of human rights is that everyone, no matter who they are or where they are born, is entitled to the same basic rights and freedoms. That may sound simple enough, but it gets incredibly complicated as soon as anyone tries to put the idea into practice. What exactly are the basic human rights? Who gets to pick them? Who enforces them—and how? Benedetta Berti explores the subtleties of human rights in the video below.

Try it

INSTRUCTIONS: Answer these questions to check your understanding of the video.

How will you use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in this course?

You will use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as your inspiration for all of your essays this term. Inside this document are many big ideas, from freedom of slavery to freedom of expression. As you study this document, you’ll find several different topics that you will write about in different ways.

  • Definition Essay – You find a word or idea in the UDHR that you want to learn more about. You explain its meaning in different ways.
  • Cause-and-Effect Essay – You choose an issue from the UDHR that you want to learn more about. You describe its cause and/or effect in detail.
  • Discussion Essay – You choose another topic from the UDHR that you want to discuss. You present the pros and cons or other considerations that are important to understand the topic.

Throughout the term, you will also write short paragraphs and complete other exercises that use information from the UDHR. It’s a very rich document, and there will be many ideas for you to choose from.

What are the rights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

There are 30 rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You can learn about them in three ways: simple English, the original English, and written and audio translations in many different languages.

What does the UDHR say in simple English?

  1. We Are All Born Free & Equal. We are all born free. We all have our own thoughts and ideas. We should all be treated in the same way.
  2. Don’t Discriminate. These rights belong to everybody, whatever our differences.
  3. The Right to Life. We all have the right to life, and to live in freedom and safety.
  4. No Slavery. Nobody has any right to make us a slave. We cannot make anyone our slave.
  5. No Torture. Nobody has any right to hurt us or to torture us.
  6. You Have Rights No Matter Where You Go. I am a person just like you!
  7. We’re All Equal Before the Law. The law is the same for everyone. It must treat us all fairly.
  8. Your Human Rights Are Protected by Law. We can all ask for the law to help us when we are not treated fairly.
  9. No Unfair Detainment. Nobody has the right to put us in prison without good reason and keep us there, or to send us away from our country.
  10. The Right to Trial. If we are put on trial this should be in public. The people who try us should not let anyone tell them what to do.
  11. We’re Always Innocent Till Proven Guilty. Nobody should be blamed for doing something until it is proven. When people say we did a bad thing we have the right to show it is not true.
  12. The Right to Privacy. Nobody should try to harm our good name. Nobody has the right to come into our home, open our letters, or bother us or our family without a good reason.
  13. Freedom to Move. We all have the right to go where we want in our own country and to travel as we wish.
  14. The Right to Seek a Safe Place to Live. If we are frightened of being badly treated in our own country, we all have the right to run away to another country to be safe.
  15. Right to a Nationality. We all have the right to belong to a country.
  16. Marriage and Family. Every grown-up has the right to marry and have a family if they want to. Men and women have the same rights when they are married, and when they are separated.
  17. The Right to Your Own Things. Everyone has the right to own things or share them. Nobody should take our things from us without a good reason.
  18. Freedom of Thought. We all have the right to believe in what we want to believe, to have a religion, or to change it if we want.
  19. Freedom of Expression. We all have the right to make up our own minds, to think what we like, to say what we think, and to share our ideas with other people.
  20. The Right to Public Assembly. We all have the right to meet our friends and to work together in peace to defend our rights. Nobody can make us join a group if we don’t want to.
  21. The Right to Democracy. We all have the right to take part in the government of our country. Every grown-up should be allowed to choose their own leaders.
  22. Social Security. We all have the right to affordable housing, medicine, education, and childcare, enough money to live on and medical help if we are ill or old.
  23. Workers’ Rights. Every grown-up has the right to do a job, to a fair wage for their work, and to join a trade union.
  24. The Right to Play. We all have the right to rest from work and to relax.
  25. Food and Shelter for All. We all have the right to a good life. Mothers and children, people who are old, unemployed or disabled, and all people have the right to be cared for.
  26. The Right to Education. Education is a right. Our parents can choose what we learn.
  27. Copyright. Copyright is a special law that protects one’s own artistic creations and writings; others cannot make copies without permission. We all have the right to our own way of life and to enjoy the good things that art, science and learning bring.
  28. A Fair and Free World. There must be proper order so we can all enjoy rights and freedoms in our own country and all over the world.
  29. Responsibility. We have a duty to other people, and we should protect their rights and freedoms.
  30. No One Can Take Away Your Human Rights.

What does the original document say?

Although the simple English version above makes it easy for you to get started, it’s also important for you to review the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially after you choose a particular topic for your essay. The original text isn’t much longer, but it can give you more context or other helpful details.

How can you read the UDHR in your first language?

It can be useful for you to also read or hear the UDHR in your first language. In fact, the UDHR is the most translated document in the world! It is available to read in 538 different languages. You can also listen to people read it aloud in nearly 90 different languages.

Try it

INSTRUCTIONS: After you have read some of the information above, discuss the UDHR with your classmates. Answer these questions:

  1. What did you know about the UDHR before this class?
  2. What was new or surprising to learn about the UDHR?
  3. What interests you about the UDHR? What are you curious about?
  4. Compare/contrast the different formats of the same document. How are they the same? How are they different? Why are they different?

Choose your first topic

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) will be the inspiration for your writing this term. To choose your first topic, follow these steps:

1. Read the simple English version (above) again carefully. Then skim the original version (follow the link above). Finally, read or listen to the the UDHR in your first language, too, so that you understand it better (follow the link above).

2. Choose a specific word, concept or idea that interests you.

3. Look up the word, concept, or idea in a dictionary (Macmillan American Dictionary and Cambridge English Learner’s Dictionary are two good, free online dictionaries, but you can use any dictionary you like; however, do not use only Google Translate). Write your answers to these questions:

  • What is the word, concept, or idea?
  • What is the name of dictionary that you used?
  • What is the dictionary definition of your word, concept, or idea? (copy the exact words and put them in “quotation marks” to show that they came from an outside source of information)
  • What is the definition of your word, concept, or idea in your own words? (paraphrase the dictionary definition in your own words)

4. Send all of these things to your instructor in an email. Here is an example:

Hello, teacher,

My name is Ordelia Halsey. I am in your Level 7 Writing class. Here is the word from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that I want to use for my definition essay:

  • Word: liberty
  • Name of dictionary: Macmillan American Dictionary
  • Dictionary definition: “the freedom to think or behave in the way that you want and not be controlled by a government or by other people”
  • My definition: I can do what I want without the government stopping me.

Please let me know if this is a good choice for my definition essay.

Thank you!

Ordelia Halsey

5. Check your email for a reply from your instructor. Your instructor will tell you if your choice is suitable for this assignment, or if you should choose another. Your instructor will also help to make sure you understand the word that you choose before you start writing your essay.



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