Human Rights Day

What are human rights?

On 10 December 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration set out 30 articles or statements about human rights and freedoms. As a member of the United Nations New Zealand adopted this declaration. In 1950 the assembly passed a resolution inviting all states and interested organisations to adopt 10 December as Human Rights Day.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets down 30 rights that humans everywhere are entitled to.

  • Discuss with your class what they understand by the term 'human rights'.
    • Divide your class into groups of three and give each group five minutes to brainstorm what they believe to be the rights all humans should have. Ensure that each group has someone prepared to report back to the rest of the class.
    • As a class, compile these results on the board. Consider as discussion points the ones that most groups came up with or the ones that few groups came up with. Compare these with the Universal Declaration itself.

2. Human rights in New Zealand

  • Do you believe people living in New Zealand have equal rights and opportunities? You could discuss this as a class or in small groups and then come back together as a class group. If your students are clearly of the opinion that the answer is no, ask them to come up with what they believe to be specific examples of people living here being denied equal rights and opportunities.
  • Which of the rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are well supported in New Zealand?
  • Which of the rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not well supported in New Zealand?

3. Protecting human rights

It is one thing to say that all humans have certain 'inalienable rights', but we are all aware that, at any one time, the lives of millions of people are dominated by the struggle to secure these rights. How can we protect human rights on a national and global level?

  1. Imagine that the United Nations has decided to run a special General Assembly for youth. It is running a competition to select one young person to represent each member nation at this assembly. The person selected must give a three-minute presentation to those gathered that:
    • outlines one action each member nation of the United Nations can take to enforce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    • outlines one action the United Nations can take to enforce the declaration.

Get the students in your class to prepare individual presentations that they could give to either small groups of five or the rest of the class. If you have made Human Rights Day a school-wide focus you could consider a school or syndicate assembly where students could make their presentation to a wider audience.

4. Promoting human rights

After the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 all member nations were called upon to publicise the declaration to ensure that it was widely known. It would be interesting to find out how many schools, workplaces, etc., display copies of the declaration or how widely known it is in various institutions like churches, councils, etc.

The purpose of this activity is to raise awareness of either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and/or Human Rights Day.

The following activities will help you do this:

  • Design a poster to make people aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and/or Human Rights Day. Discuss/brainstorm with your class the features you are looking for in this poster and perhaps model some examples of similar posters, including the one the United Nations is using to promote Human Rights Day.
  • Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, and explain the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the purpose of Human Rights Day. Most newspapers set a word limit of around 200 words.
  • Design (and make) a badge that promotes one of the rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

5. Human Rights and poverty

Poverty is a cause and a product of human rights violations and is probably the gravest human rights challenge in the world. In 2006 the focus of Human Rights Day was 'Fighting poverty: a matter of obligation, not charity'. 

Article 25 (1), Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

More than one in six people in the world live in poverty. They lack the materials and resources needed to fulfil their basic needs. Without access to such things as employment, basic health care, education and essentials like food, clothing and water, many poor people lack the means to change their lives for the better and are condemned to live a life of poverty.

New Zealand has recognised these issues and responded through contributions to the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund and other funds and programmes.

  • How does poverty stop people achieving their rights as people?
  • How can the abuse of human rights create poverty?
  • Consider the following discussion points:
    • To what extent is poverty an individual's problem? In other words why should the wider community play any part in 'fighting poverty'?
    • For older classes a debate that questions the need to define and protect human rights could be a good way of rounding off this topic.

These questions could be used as the basis of a personal writing exercise or as part of a class discussion.

  • Debate: older classes might want to use these ideas to organise a more formal class debate. Possible topics could be:
    • A. Fighting poverty: charity begins at home. New Zealand should devote its energy and money to solving problems of poverty in New Zealand only.
    • B. It is impossible to achieve the aims of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

To prepare for the debate, divide your class into groups of four and select a topic.

  • Get half of the groups to prepare arguments that support the statement given and the other groups to prepare arguments that oppose the statement.
  • Each group is to brainstorm their arguments and write them down.
  • Now ask each group to add their thoughts to two lists either on the board or on large sheets of paper that are divided into two appropriate columns.
  • Now select six members of the class to debate the topic, applying the usual rules of a formal debate with a team in the affirmative, a team in the negative, speaking times, etc.

Alternatively, consider applying Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats to either (or both) of the following statements. Six Thinking Hats is a good technique for looking at the effects of a decision from a number of different points of view.

  • A. It is impossible to achieve the aims of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • B. The United Nations is a waste of time, and New Zealand should quit as a member.
    • Wearing your white hat:
      Look at the information you have, and see what you can learn from it. Look for gaps in your knowledge, and either try to fill them or take account of them.
    • Wearing your red hat:
      Consider your feelings. What is wrong with this statement? Wearing your red hat, you can look at problems using intuition, gut reaction and emotion. Try to think how other people will react emotionally. Try to understand the responses of people who do not fully know your reasoning.
    • Wearing your black hat:
      Look at all the bad points of this statement. Try to see why it might not work. This is important because it highlights the weak points in an idea. It allows you to eliminate them, alter them or prepare alternative plans to counter them.
    • Wearing your yellow hat:
      Consider the good points to this statement and all of the possible benefits and value.
    • Wearing your green hat:
      Think creatively. This is where you can develop creative responses to this statement. There is no real right or wrong, and there is little criticism of your ideas.
    • Wearing your blue hat:
      What other thinking is needed here about this statement?
How to cite this page

'What are human rights?', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Oct-2021