Social Education Human Rights Series

We Must Integrate Human Rights into the Social Studies


Ed O’Brien

Something is missing in our society, culture, and language. It is an understanding of human rights and the use of its terminology when referring to human rights problems in the United States. Achieving human rights is not a stated goal of our government or people. Therefore, it should be no surprise that when we search for use of the term “human rights” in social studies standards, curricula, and textbooks, it mainly refers to the Holocaust or other flagrant abuses of humanity in any country but the United States.

I came to a personal understanding of this omission on a visit to South Africa in 1985, where I worked with a group of people dedicated to a “New South Africa” whose citizenry and government would be informed by a culture of human rights. As director of Street Law, Inc., an organization that teaches about the principles of law, I was confronted with the question: “Why don’t you include human rights in your own Street Law curriculum?” I answered that I thought teaching about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights—and addressing such issues as police brutality, the death penalty, forms of discrimination, and freedom of religion—was teaching about human rights.

The South African educators and lawyers with whom I was working countered that people in the United States seem to think of human rights as something that applies to other countries but not to their own society. They saw our educational system as neglecting the worldwide movement for human rights and failing to teach important human rights values. U.S. social studies texts, they said, reflect political and civil rights, but do not address social and economic rights. Considering the wealth of the United States, they criticized American society for not addressing such problems as the poor education of inner city children, the lack of health insurance for all, and the existence of homelessness and hunger as human rights issues.

After listening to them, I realized that the South Africans were right. I looked in our newspapers and found human rights rarely referred to except in ways such as: “Our Human Rights Policy Toward China” or “A Report on Past Human Rights Abuses in Guatemala.” Police brutality, unequal justice, and discrimination at home were seen as “problems,” but rarely as issues of human rights.

The language of human rights remains a foreign tongue to most Americans. Does this reflect an anti-global attitude that rejects having our problems judged by the world at large? Does it signify a belief that it is not the responsibility of government, but the role of individuals, to address social and economic problems? Are we unwilling to place the new concept of human rights, codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, on par with the rights delineated in the U.S. Constitution?


What Are Human Rights?

Human rights, as defined by the UDHR, are universal rights that all human beings possess. Human rights are often divided into two general categories: political and civil rights, which the U.S. Bill of Rights addresses so well; and social and economic rights, which our Constitution addresses not at all. Human rights can be violated by governments or by private individuals. They are not just actions like torture, which the media has almost totally equated with the term “human rights,” but include other indignities, such as a child being beaten up by another child, a father abandoning his family, or an employer harassing an employee.

Human rights also imply responsibilities. For example, Article 29 of the UDHR declares: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” Article 30 clearly states that it is the responsibility of all individuals, groups, and the state to avoid taking away any right listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Even the most important United Nations declarations and treaties (often called covenants or conventions) pertaining to human rights find rare mention in our social studies textbooks. Foremost among them is the UDHR, a statement of rights that has been agreed to by almost every country in the world, but is not a binding international treaty. The two principal treaties involving human rights are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the U.S. has signed and ratified) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which the U.S. has signed but not ratified).

Even when the United States signs and ratifies a human rights treaty, it often imposes a “reservation” that restricts the power of the treaty within the United States. For example, the U.S. has reserved the right not to honor treaties that outlaw the death penalty for juveniles. The stated reason for some reservations taken by the United States is that our system of federalism does not allow the national government to place such binding restrictions on states.

One argument against giving extensive coverage to human rights in social studies courses might be that much of existing human rights law has been rendered not binding in U.S. courts. On the other hand, a case can be made that students should be informed about human rights treaties in order to make intelligent judgments about whether our government should support them. For example, should the U.S. ratify treaties that ensure human rights for specific groups of people, including women, children, and indigenous peoples?

Many human rights treaties have provisions that make them important whether or not a treaty is enforceable in court. For example, they often require countries that sign them to report on the state of human rights in that country. Two treaties with reporting requirements that the United States has signed and ratified are the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Race Convention.

“Human rights” refers to a set of values regarding how human beings should act toward one another that was universally agreed upon when the nations of the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But just how universal is that agreement? Some would say that the U.S. Constitution embodies this set of values; but, as noted above, while our constitution is strong in the areas of political and civil rights, it does not address economic and social rights.

We have heard many criticisms of the “values of our society” or the “lack of values of our young people” over the past few years. Books on virtue, the communitarian movement, and character education are all efforts to address this issue. Unfortunately, these re-examinations of American values rarely look to the concept of human rights for the value system we all share.


Human Rights in the Social Studies

I have found human rights to be a good lens through which to examine virtually every issue in the social studies. Yet, where are human rights taught? Almost exclusively as part of Holocaust education or in the foreign affairs unit of a government course. This is not enough.

We need to teach our students the basics of human rights and to provide them with a framework and language to use as they encounter these issues in all their social studies courses. For example, in studying U.S. history, a unit on the colonies would benefit from references to the human rights now embedded in the UDHR, including these examples: taxation without representation (Article 19, Freedom of Opinion; Article 17, Right to Property; and Article 21, Right to Participation in Government); religious freedom (Article 18, Freedom of Belief and Religion); slavery (Article 4, Freedom from Slavery)

All U.S. government courses should include human rights standards by which the performance of government can be measured. When one discusses each of the three branches of government, it would be a good exercise to examine which articles of the UDHR apply to that branch, and how the government is measuring up in protecting the human rights of the people. As education about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights is a required part of government courses, this is a perfect opportunity to compare our documents with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to see where they are alike and how they differ. One can ask the fundamental question: “Can one explain all the differences by the fact that the UDHR, except by subsequent treaty, is not enforceable and the U.S. Constitution is?”

Economics courses are sometimes critized for being taught in a way that does not reflect values other than the need for a free market and methods for improving the economy and increasing profits. This criticism may be addressed by using the human rights framework to show how various economic actions raise or lower the standard of living for all people in a country, affect workers, and affect indigenous peoples. Another example of its relevance involves the current debate over foreign policy toward China, and whether human rights concerns should be attached to an economic policy.

Law courses should also include human rights, which provide a way to measure whether our laws are achieving the goal of justice. It is not difficult to see how many societal issues have human rights aspects to them. For example, the issue of excessive fraternity hazing can be related to UDHR Article 3, Personal Security. The issue of homelessness obviously relates to UDHR Article 25, Right to Adequate Living Standard. Affirmative action relates to UDHR Article 1, Equality and Article 2, Freedom from Discrimination. It also involves group rights, which are not listed in the UDHR, but have arisen out of Article 27, Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of Community.

In global studies, we should examine other cultures and practices that may involve the violation of human rights. As almost every country belongs to the United Nations and has endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such discussion is relevant in the study of global issues.

Bringing Human Rights Home

The question remains: will the U.S. media, the educational establishment, and people at large continue to ignore the ideas and language of human rights when considering “problems” within our own society? A 1997 survey conducted by Human Rights USA, an initiative to promote human rights education in the United States, found that only 4 percent of high school students knew there was such a document as the UDHR, and fewer could name it. However, the increased globalization of the media—including the Internet—may lead to wider recognition of the UDHR and better understanding of human rights.

Once they learned what “human rights” were, most people in the survey (87 percent) said they thought people in the United States should be educated about human rights. The human rights movement is global and will expand in the years ahead. The role of teachers in introducing more human rights issues, and using the language of human rights, in courses throughout the social studies will be a vital part of this effort. G


Ed O’Brien is Director of Street Law, Inc., a national (and now international) educational organization, and co-author of many social studies materials, including the Street Law textbook.



Teaching About Human Rights


Two years ago, Street Law, Inc., joined together with three of the most active organizations in the field of human rights education to form Human Rights USA. The three organizations are Amnesty International USA Educators Network, whose membership includes many social studies teachers; the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, which has conducted human rights education statewide; and the Center for Human Rights Education (CHRE), a leader in community-based human rights education. With help from the Ford and Stanley Foundations, Human Rights USA has been working toward the shared goa#151;expressed in a phrase coined by CHRE—“to bring human rights home” in the United States.

Our own textbook, Street Law: A Course in Practical Law (6th ed.), has recently been revised to include a Human Rights USA feature in every chapter. Both this text and Street Law’s Human Rights for All text can be used as supplements to the regular textbook in courses throughout the social studies. We have also developed a program called Youth Act! to give young people the opportunity to learn about human rights, identify human rights issues in their community, and take action to address these problems.

The Human Rights USA Resource Center offers additional materials, including a text called Human Rights Here and Now, as well as Amnesty International USA manuals, on various human rights issues. The Resource Center also has multiple copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights available upon request.

For more information about these materials, teachers may contact Human Rights USA and Street Law, Inc.

Resources for Teaching about Human Rights


Human Rights USA Resource

Center and Website

310 Fourth Ave. South, Suite 1000

Minneapolis, MN 55415

Phone: 1-888-HREDUC8




Street Law, Inc.

918 16th Street, NW, Suite 602

Washington, D.C. 20006-2902

Phone: 202-293-0088

Fax: 918-293-0089



(For sample Street Law or Human Rights for All texts, contact West Educational Publishing at 1-888-354-9707)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): Abbreviated


Now, therefore, THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms:


Article 1 Right to Equality

Article 2 Freedom from Discrimination

Article 3 Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security

Article 4 Freedom from Slavery

Article 5 Freedom from Torture, Degrading Treatment

Article 6 Right to Recognition as a Person before the Law

Article 7 Right to Equality before the Law

Article 8 Right to Remedy by Competent Tribunal

Article 9 Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest, and Exile

Article 10 Right to Fair Public Hearing

Article 11 Right to be considered Innocent until proven Guilty

Article 12 Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence

Article 13 Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country

Article 14 Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution

Article 15 Right to a Nationality and Freedom to Change It

Article 16 Right to Marriage and Family

Article 17 Right to own Property

Article 18 Freedom of Belief and Religion

Article 19 Freedom of Opinion and Information

Article 20 Right to Peaceful Assembly and Association

Article 21 Right to Participate in Government and in Free Elections

Article 22 Right to Social Security

Article 23 Right to Desirable Work and to Join Trade Unions

Article 24 Right to Rest and Leisure

Article 25 Right to Adequate Living Standard

Article 26 Right to Education

Article 27 Right to Participate in the Cultural Life of Community

Article 28 Right to Social Order assuming Human Rights

Article 29 Community Duties essential to Free and Full Development

Article 30 Freedom from State or Personal Interference in the above Rights


Lesson: Are These Human Rights Violations?

This will provide an opportunity to look at an aspect of human rights in the United States. This activity will usually include some reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Are these human rights violations?

a. Assume the following take place in the U.S. Decide if each is a human rights violation. If it is, identify the article of the UDHR at issue.

> Before class starts, the teacher says, “you can’t pray in school.”

> A child in the family goes to sleep hungry because the parents have no money to buy food.

> A student receives a poor education in her high school and is rejected for every job she applies for.

> A burglar breaks into a house at night and steals a television.

> A man drives his car too fast and crashes into a guard rail.

> A Spanish-speaking student speaks Spanish to another student. The principal tells the students that only English may be spoken in the school.

> A woman is ill and is turned away from a hospital because she doesn’t have health insurance or the money to pay her medical bill.

> A homeless man asks for money from people walking on the street, but people do not give him any money.

> A boy attends a public school that does not have enough books for all the students.

> A newspaper is not allowed to publish the method of making a bomb.

> An African-American police officer arrests a white man, who physically resists arrests and yells racist words at him. The police officer handcuffs him and then hits him three times with his police baton.

b. Did you find two or more human rights in conflict in any of the above examples? What should be done when this occurs?

c. In which of the examples are there laws in the U.S. to protect the human right involved? In which are there no such laws? Should there always be a law to protect a human right?

This lesson is adapted from StreetLaw: A Course in Practical Law (CITY: West Educational Publishers, 1999) and published with the permission of Street Law, Inc.

Lesson: Life in a New Country: What Rights Would You Choose?

You have decided to leave the country in which you have been living in order to go, with others, to a new country where people have never lived before. In order to set up the best possible society, you and your group decide to make a list of the rights guaranteed everyone in the new country.

Choosing Rights for a New Country

> On your own, list at least three rights you think should be guaranteed.

> Next, share and discuss your individual lists with the group. Then select no more than ten rights you all agree are important.

> List your group’s choices on newsprint or a blackboard so that everyone in the group can see them. Compare them to the rights selected by other groups. Which rights do all groups have? Which ones do only some groups have?

> Make general headings and place related rights from all groups together.

> Do any rights on the combined lists contradict one another? If so, which?

This lesson is adapted from Human Rights for All (West Educational Publishing, 1999), and published with the permission of Street Law, Inc.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.