Human rights is the focus of this assembly, as Brian Radcliffe invites students to consider the 60th birthday of the launch of the UNUDHR, discussing its relevance today and why it is important for young people to be aware of it

Resources

  • Birthday cake with candles.
  • Quotations from the UNUDHR are taken from the UN website www.un.org.

Engagement

Leader: We have an important birthday to celebrate this month. [Leader lights the candles]

Would you like to join me in singing… [Leader bursts into song]

‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear…’

[Talking]

I’m sorry, I never told you whose birthday it is, have I? In December 2008 we celebrate the 60th birthday of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On December 10th 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the first list of human rights for every man, woman and child in the world. The world’s leaders had seen so much violence and injustice during the years of World War 2 that they together created this declaration as a blueprint for other governments to follow. It’s still the basis for our understanding of human rights today. So, Happy Birthday UNUDHR.

[Leader blows out candles]

Reflection

60 years old, imagine that. How many people do you know who are 60 years old? Think about them for a moment. They are probably very interesting people to talk to and they have a wealth of experience to pass on. However, they’re probably not quite as fit as they used to be. Their hearing and sight aren’t as sharp, their memory has begun to play up. They grunt and groan as they get up out of a chair. In short, they’re not the people they were in their youth. 60 years has worn them out.

Might it be the same for the UNUDHR? Might it be out of date in the 21st century? The world has changed – surely our problems are different to those that faced the post-war generations? We live in a thoroughly global society, with instant communication via the internet and satellite technology. We have genetic engineering, global terrorism, identity theft. Maybe we should pension off the UNUDHR?

Let’s look for a moment at the contents of the Declaration. It starts with two important statements:

First: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

[Pause]

Second: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of persons.

[Pause]

The Declaration then goes on to talk about slavery, equality before the law, freedom of movement, marriage, democracy and voting, the right to voice your opinion, work, education, rest and leisure, religion and many other life situations. These sound to me like they would still address like the kind of issues which are in the news day-to-day. They apply directly to the situations in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Somalia, Guantanamo Bay, China and Iraq. They apply to people who are about to lose their jobs as a result of the credit crunch or who want the chance to own their own homes. They apply to you in school when you feel a sense of injustice, or feel that your voice isn’t being heard.

The politicians who devised the Declaration of Human Rights were very wise. They asked that the text of the declaration particularly be displayed, read and taught in schools and colleges throughout the world. A great deal of time, money and effort was spent, and is still spent today, in helping children and teenagers understand human rights. Why might this be?

On one hand it’s to make sure that every generation is encouraged to apply the declaration to themselves, so that they develop knowledge of their own human rights. We could do this now, and apply elements of the declaration to our life together in this school. For instance, the UNUDHR is relevant to situations where the behaviour of certain students denies others the chance to fully benefit from their education, as the right to education is being denied. It applies to bullies who deny others the right to freedom of movement, or when they steal people’s possessions. It applies to those situations where you feel a punishment has been given to you unfairly. The UNUDHR is relevant here and now, in this school.

On the other hand, the declaration is taught in schools in order to stimulate each generation to think creatively and to devise their own lists of human rights. The UNUDHR has been a blueprint for many, more local versions: the United Kingdom Human Rights Act; the European Convention on Human Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child… Each of these is an attempt to apply the principles of the original universal document to specific groups of people. Also, organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Liberty have come into being, with the role of monitoring how countries keep to the terms of the declaration. It appears that, rather than deteriorating with age, the declaration grows stronger the longer it exists and still manages to retain its relevance.

Response

So, what does all this mean for us?

Firstly it means that we should never put up with the behaviour of those who try to deny us our freedom. We have a right to protest.

Secondly it means that we have a responsibility to support one another, and, particularly, to defend those who are not yet strong enough to stand alone.

Think about the words of this prayer. Make it your own if you wish.

Dear God

We thank you for the initiative of those who created the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago.

We share their declaration that all of us in this school are free and equal.

We commit ourselves to ensuring that everyone has life, liberty and security within this community.

Amen

This e-bulletin issue was first published in December 2008

About the author: Brian Radcliffe

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