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Focus question 1: What are human rights?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Establishing priorities ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Types of rights ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: Rights and responsibilities ESL Activity 3
Assessment task ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  

Hot-air balloon

Activity 1: Establishing priorities

Imagine that you are floating high above the world in a hot-air balloon. You have the following ten 'rights' in the balloon with you. Copy them into your workbook. You have the right to:

  • be treated equally regardless of gender or race
  • be treated with respect by younger people
  • education
  • equal opportunity in the workplace
  • free speech
  • independence from your family
  • life
  • live in a clean, green environment
  • social security provided by the government
  • vote.

As the balloon floats along, a mountain appears in the distance. One of the 'rights' must be thrown out to make the balloon lighter, so that it will rise above the mountain. Remember - once you have discarded a right it has gone forever.

1a Choose the right you will discard first. It is now gone. Cross it off your list of rights.

You continue, but you are still not high enough. You must throw out another right.

1b Choose that right, and cross it off your list.

You are still in trouble.

1c Choose and discard again - and keep doing this now until you have only four rights left.

1d Briefly explain why you have kept those four rights.

1e Survey the rest of the class to see which four rights other people have kept. Which ones have been most commonly kept? Why?

Now imagine that you are in the balloon again at the start of the flight, with all the rights restored. But this time you are an observer - the main person is a visitor from another planet, Hanic, who will be doing the choosing of the rights, not you. To understand the choices the visitor can make, you will need to know something of the culture of the people of planet Hanic, and how the people there live.

The culture of Hanic

Hanic has a long and rich culture and history.

Everybody on this planet follows the same religion, which is based on respect. The young do not question their elders. People in authority are treated with respect and their ideas are followed. There are no government social services, so as people get older they are taken in and looked after and treated with great respect by younger family members.

All people have their place in society, and everybody accepts that.

The sexes are not treated equally. Men and women have different roles, and the oldest male is always considered the head of the household.

Many of the people work in the fields to produce crops that are sold in the market. In the cities there is great economic development taking place, but the traditional rules of society that have served this planet so well for many generations are still respected.

The people of Hanic are very proud of their civilisation, and think that their way of life is the way everybody should live.

1f Go through the exercise again with a fresh list of rights - but this time choose the rights as the visitor from Hanic might choose.

1g Compare the ranking of your rights with that of the visitor. Did you end up keeping similar rights in both cases? Why or why not?

Societies may give different values to different rights, and have different views on or definitions of human rights.

Activity 2: Types of rights

2a After reading 'Defining human rights' below, look back at the list of rights in the balloon (Activity 1). List these under headings corresponding to the three human rights categories (civil, political, social). For example, free speech is a civil right.

2b Look at the two examples below of abuses of rights reported by Amnesty International. Amnesty International is an international human rights organisation. You will learn more about it later in this unit.

2c What category of rights does each of these cases fit in?

2d How do the situations described violate those rights?

2e Draw up a table with three columns, one for each of the three categories of rights: civil, political and social. List five rights in each column, but leave room underneath each for some comments to be added later. You will be able to use some from the list in Activity 1, but you will need to add others.

Defining human rights

Human rights are customs, practices and laws that have developed over centuries to protect people, races, groups and minorities from oppressive rules and/or governments. They are based on the principle that all members of the human race are equal. They have developed and become established through a variety of events and processes, including wars and rebellions. However, at historically significant moments, human rights have been written down in documents that now form the basis of modern rights.

The historian TH Marshall defined human rights as being of three types.

Civil rights

The rights to liberty and equal treatment before the law, including provisions to safeguard the liberty of the person; freedom of speech, thought and faith; and the right to justice and freedom from unfair restrictions by the state.

Political rights

Freedom to vote, organise, participate in social movements, associations and parties and seek political office.

Social rights

Access to education and health care, security of employment, adequate housing and income maintenance, rights to a basic level of material well-being by virtue of one's citizenship rather than an individual's market capacity.

Amnesty International case studies

Case study 1

Paul Hill was arrested, tried, found guilty and jailed in 1975 for bombing hotels in England in support of Irish independence. He maintained his innocence, and said that some evidence against him was fabricated by the police, and that some supporting evidence was kept secret from the court during his trial.

Amnesty International helped to maintain public awareness of the case, and provided legal help. Eventually, the British Government admitted that police officers had lied at his trial, and he was released and the conviction quashed [cancelled].

His story was made into a film, In the Name of the Father.

Case study 2

Yuzana Khin is a supporter of democracy in Burma. She led a non-violent demonstration of 10,000 Burmese against the military government. Hundreds of them were shot down by the police and government troops in 1988. Amnesty International helped her to flee Burma, and gain refuge in the United States of America. In 1991 she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of pro-democracy Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest in Burma.

Rights have corresponding responsibilities

How far do human rights go?

We would all, for example, want the right to a free education. But where does that end? At primary level? At secondary level? At tertiary level? Never?

We all want the right to free speech. But where does that right end? Does it give us the right to yell 'fire' in a crowded theatre, or to tell lies about other people?

Every right implies a responsibility not to use that right in a way which interferes with another person's rights. For example, the right to freedom of movement would not give you the right to drive the wrong way along a one-way street. Exercising that right would create danger for other people, and create social chaos.

A group of international public leaders, the InterAction Council, based in Tokyo, has produced a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities (September 1997). Some of their ideas about responsibilities which match rights are given below.

Declaration of Human Responsibilities

  • If we have a right to life, then we have the obligation to respect life.
  • If we have a right to liberty, then we have a right to respect other people's liberty.
  • If we have a right to security, then we have the obligation to create the conditions for every human being to enjoy human security.

Activity 3: Rights and responsibilities

Look at the following list of rights, and decide what a matching responsibility for each might be. Complete the sentence in each case.

  • If we have a right to take part in political processes, then we have a responsibility to ...
  • If we have a right to work in just conditions, then we have a responsibility to ...
  • If we have a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, then we have a responsibility to ...
  • If we have a right to be educated, then we have a responsibility to ...
  • If we have a right to benefit from the earth's products, then we have a responsibility to ...

Assessment task

Look at a daily newspaper. You should be able to find at least one story involving each of the three categories of human rights: civil, political and social.

Prepare a summary of one of the articles, commenting on:

  • the right(s) involved
  • the issue involved
  • why the issue is being raised or in dispute
  • your own opinions on the issue.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

  • identifying an appropriate issue for each category of rights
  • identifying the human right involved in the issue
  • clear explanation of the issue
  • consideration of all important matters in giving your own view.

ESL activities

Back to 'Human Rights - At a glance'

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