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Focus question 2: Where did human rights come from?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: The French Revolution and the defining of human rights ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Comparing rights defined in the past with rights today ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: Rights and responsibilities ESL Activity 3


In 1948 the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights set out in that document have been added to in various other human rights declarations by the United Nations since, but that Declaration stands as the basic statement of what we expect as a minimum standard in human rights today.

The recognition of rights that are claimed as universal human rights today did not just happen. They were often fought for over a long period of time.

There are four milestones in the development of rights which are claimed as universal human rights today. These are:

  • the 1776 Declaration of Independence of the United States of America
  • the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen
  • the group of amendments made in 1791 to the United States Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights
  • the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the following section you will look at the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Activity 1: The French Revolution and the defining of human rights

France before the Revolution of 1789

Society was divided into layers. At the very top was the king. The king was there by God's will. He had absolute power to make laws. He was the law.

At least that was the theory. In reality, the king was very much influenced by the wealthy nobility. They were the top layer of the society and held important official positions. They had special powers and privileges, and could demand taxes and service from those under them.

The next layer was the clergy - or really, the rich and influential clergy, such as bishops. They too had special rights and privileges, and were governed by special church laws, not those of the state.

Next came the bourgeoisie, the middle-class people of wealth. The richest of them could buy their way into the nobility. Most could not, and resented the constant demands on them for taxes to support the king and his government. But those with money could always buy various public offices and use the position to make wealth for themselves.

Near the bottom were the peasants - the rural poor - and the city workers. These really were at the bottom. The laws exploited them. They had no vote. They were presumed guilty if arrested for a crime, and had no right to legal representation if they could not afford it. They could be tortured by the officials of the state. People's property could be seized, and their personal rights had to give way before traditional obligations, such as the obligation to work for their nobles for nothing.

Nobles rode horses through the peasants' wheat crops while hunting, and their pet doves ate the seed the peasants needed for the next season's food crop. They had to pay heavy taxes, and had no say in how they were used.

The Catholic Church was the only legal church. There was no freedom of speech or ideas. The nobles and the king were terrified that the peasants and the urban poor might develop revolutionary ideas.

There were even fewer rights for women of all classes than for their male peers.

Some nobles and clergy recognised the injustice of the society they were living in and supported change, but most accepted the system which gave them great wealth and privileges.

This was the nature of French society before the 1789 revolution, a revolution which removed the powers and privileges of the king, nobles and the Church and led to the execution of the king and queen. A National Assembly including representatives from all classes was created. They drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

1a Read 'France before the Revolution of 1789' and identify those aspects of life in eighteenth-century France that demonstrate or imply a lack of human rights. Make a list of these in your workbook. One example has been identified for you (see underlined).

1b Look at the following extracts from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and decide which of the abuses of human rights that you identified in Activity 1a were addressed by the Declaration. Write the particular Article below each example of abuse you have identified. For example, below Society was divided into layers, write #1 to show that this abuse of human rights was addressed by Article 1 of the Declaration.

1c How do you think each of the main groups of people in France in 1789 would have reacted to the Declaration?

1d Which of these rights would you expect to have today in your society and which are no longer relevant? List those you consider irrelevant and discuss them as a class.

This Declaration is one of the founding statements of what we accept as a set of basic human rights for people today.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

From a painting of the statue Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

Approved by the National Assembly of France, 26 August, 1789

The representatives of the French people, organised as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable [cannot be taken away], and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties ... Therefore the National Assembly recognises and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen:


1 Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

4 Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law....

6 Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.

7 No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law ...

8 The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offence.

9 As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner's person shall be severely repressed by law.

10 No one may be persecuted because of his opinion, including his religious views, so long as the expression of the opinions does not interfere with law and order.

11 The free communication of ideas and opinions including his religious views, is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law ...

13 A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.

14 All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.

15 Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration ...

17 Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.

Adapted from

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Logo for the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Logo for the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Reproduced with the permission of the United Nations Information Centre, Australia, Sydney, NSW.

A second key historical document is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United Nations is the body of representatives of nations of the world. It was created at the end of World War II in 1945 to provide a forum for peaceful discussion and solution of international problems.

In 1948 the United Nations met and passed a landmark document. By the end of World War II it became widely known that there had been some terrible abuses of people during the war, in particular the attempted extermination of the Jews in Europe by the German National Socialist (Nazi) Government. The United Nations declared that all people had certain rights that must never be violated. It listed these in its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Australia, like most other countries, has 'ratified' or accepted this Declaration; that is, Australia has pledged that it will make sure these rights are built into its own laws.

Activity 2: Comparing rights defined in the past with rights today

Stories2a Look at the simplified version of the UN Declaration. A full version of the Declaration is available on the Stories of Democracy CD ROM. Compare it to the French Declaration. Identify those rights which are common to both documents by writing in your workbook the number of the appropriate Article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen beside the corresponding Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Simplified version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

All people everywhere have the same human rights which no one can take away. This is the basis of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

This Declaration affirms the dignity and worth of all people, and the equal rights of women and men. The rights described here are the common standard for all people everywhere. Every person and nation is asked to support the understanding and respect for these rights, and to take steps to make sure that they are recognised and observed everywhere, for all people.

Article 1

You have the same human rights as everyone else in the world because you are a human being. These rights cannot be taken away from you. Everybody ... should be treated with dignity.

Article 2

You should not be treated differently, or have your rights taken away because of your race [ethnicity], colour, sex, language, religion or political opinions. Your basic rights should be respected ... no matter how rich or poor you are.

Article 3

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and [to be safe].

Article 4

Human beings must not be owned, bought or sold. No one has the right to enslave anyone else. Slavery is a crime.

Article 5

Torture is forbidden ... No one should suffer treatment or punishment that is cruel or makes them feel less than human.

Article 6

Everyone has the right to be treated as a person in the eyes of the law.

Article 7

You have the right to be treated [and protected] by law in the same way as everyone else.

Article 8

If your rights under the law are violated ... you have the right to see justice done.

Article 9

You may not be arrested or [imprisoned] without good reason. You may not be kept out of your own country ...

Article 10

You have the right to a fair and public [trial] ... The courts must be independent from the government, qualified ... and free to make their own decisions.

Article 11

If accused of a crime, you have the right to be treated as innocent until you are proved guilty ... You have the right to ... defend yourself ...

Article 12

No one has the right to intrude in your private life ... without good reason. No one has the right to attack your good name without reason ... The law should protect you against such interference.

Article 13

You have the right to move about freely within your own country [and] to travel to and from your own country ...

Article 14

If you are forced to flee your country because of human rights abuses, you have the right to seek safety in another country. This right does not apply if you have committed a non-political crime ...

Article 15

You have the right to be treated as a citizen of the country you come from. No one can take away your citizenship or prevent you from changing your country without good reason.

Article 16

All adults have the right to marry ...

Both partners have equal rights in the marriage, and their full and free agreement is needed for the marriage to take place ...

Article 17

You have the right to own goods ... and other property ... No one has the right to take your property away without any good reason.

Article 18

You have the right to hold views on any issue ... without fear of punishment ... You also have the right to believe in any religion - or none at all ... and to practice and teach your religion and beliefs.

Article 19

You have the right to tell people your opinion ... [no matter how] unpopular [it may be].

Article 20

You have the right to peacefully gather together with other people, in public or in private. No one should force you to join any group if you do not wish to.

Article 21

You have the right to take part in the government of your country directly or by being represented ... free and fair elections should be held on a regular basis.

Article 22

You have the right to have your basic needs met. Everyone is entitled to live in economic, social and cultural conditions that allow them dignity ...

Article 23

You have the right to work in fair and safe conditions and to choose your job. You have the right to be paid enough for a decent standard of living ... You also have the right to form or join trade unions to protect your interests.

Article 24

You have the right to time off from work ... [and] to holidays with pay.

Article 25

Everyone has the right to a decent life, including enough food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services. Society should help those unable to work ... Mothers and children are entitled to special care ...

Article 26

Everyone has the right to an education. In the early years ... it should be free ... and compulsory ... at a higher level [it] should be equally available to everyone on the basis of merit ...

Article 27

No-one may stop you from participating in the cultural life of your community.

Article 28

Human beings have the right to live in the kind of world where their rights and freedoms are respected.

Article 29

We all have a responsibility to the people around us ... All the rights in [this declaration] can be limited only by law and then only if necessary to protect other people's rights, meet society's sense of right and wrong, maintain order, and look after the welfare of society as a whole.

Article 30

There is nothing [in this declaration] that justifies any person or state doing anything that takes away from the rights to which we are all entitled.

From Amnesty International Australian Newsletter Jan/Feb 1998.

2b What are the main differences between the two Declarations?

2c What areas of human rights developed between 1789 and 1948? How can you explain this development?

2d Your teacher will allocate a right to each member of the class. Your task is to promote that right through a poster that includes drawings or a logo, slogans and an explanation.

Activity 3: Rights and responsibilities

How universal is the idea of human rights?

Not all countries share this western view of the importance of individual rights. The United Nations in 1948 was basically a western organisation. Many Asian and African countries were colonies of western countries, or were very weak economically and therefore not very influential. Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights apply to them?


Confucianism is a philosophy which has influenced and still strongly influences people in many Asian countries. According to Confucius five relationships are central to happiness and well-being:

  1. The ruler should be obeyed and respected by all. Loyalty on the part of subjects should be repaid with benevolence [doing good to others] on the part of the ruler.
  2. A son must respect his parents and parents must love their son.
  3. Younger brothers must respect older brothers, who have a responsibility to look after them.
  4. A wife must respect her husband.
  5. A person must respect all his friends.

3a How do the rules listed above agree or conflict with the United Nations list of rights?

3b How might a belief in Confucianism affect a person's attitude to some of the individual rights claimed by the western tradition?

3c Go back to the balloon exercise (Focus question 1, Activity 2). How does the society in Hanic reflect Confucian values?

3d Do you think western values and human rights standards would be accepted by a Confucian society?

3e Write a set of family relationships that you think would be good to live by, which involve rights and obligations in relationships.

ESL activities

Back to 'Human Rights - At a glance'

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