Discovering the UDHR

(from Introducing Human Rights in the Middle School)
(Source: Patrick Manson, Amnesty International USA Human Rights Educators' Network, 1996)

By examining two real cases of human rights abuses, students are introduced to the contents and spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is presented as a document that extends the ideas of tolerance and defending others (see Activity #1) to the areas of religious and political thought, security of person, fairness and justice.

To become familiar with the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
To analyze rights abused and rights upheld in two real cases

Time: minimum 1 hour; easily divided over more than 1 day

Materials: Copies of "Religious Intolerance in Tibet" and "The Lopez Story", copies of the "Regular English" version of the UDHR, and "Reflection Activity on Rights and Responsibilities" chart.


  1. Students read (individually, out loud, in groups) "Religious Intolerance in Tibet." Briefly discuss the article as a whole class with an emphasis on getting the story straight, i.e., without yet getting into a rights discussion. (20-30 mins)

  2. Students read (individually, out loud, in groups) the "regular English" version of the UDHR. Focus their attention on articles 2, 5, 15, 18, and 20. (15 mins)

  3. Divide students into five or more groups; each group takes one of the five articles above and list details from the Tibet article as examples of the denial or affirmation of their UDHR article. Students must be able to explain how their UDHR article is important to understanding the Tibet article. (10-15 mins)

  4. Class discusses the situation of Tibetan Buddhists using the human rights language and concepts they've just discovered. (10-15 mins)

  5. Individually, students fill in the "Reflection Activity on Rights and Responsibilities" chart. (10-15 mins)

  6. Repeat steps 1-5 for "The Lopez Story" and use instead UDHR articles 2, 3, 5, 12, and 14.

Religious Intolerance in Tibet

Tibet is a small country between China and India. For hundreds of years, the Chinese have claimed the area of Tibet as a part of China. During most of this time, Tibetans have been allowed to live as they want: to practice their cultural traditions and to pursue the main religion in Tibet, Buddhism. But in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party came into power, the government cracked down on all forms of religion, including Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, 4,000 out of 6,000 Tibetan temples have been destroyed. But more severe and tragic has been the violence done to those Tibetans who practice the religion of their choice. One such case is that of a young Tibetan nun.

Gyaltsen Kelsang was arrested in June, 1993 with ten other Tibetan nuns and accused of taking part in a demonstration to protest Chinese rule over Tibet. Reports say that the nuns were arrested before they even began their protest. Gyaltsen Kelsang was given a two-year sentence for peacefully criticizing the Chinese government. It is reported that she was beaten and injured when she was arrested, but she was still forced to participate in the hard work of a labor camp. A year later, she became very ill, and the authorities did not offer her medical care. Finally, late in November, 1994, she was taken to a police hospital, and a month later she was sent home to her parents. She died on February 20, 1995 at the age of 24.

Other cases of religious intolerance in Tibet have been reported by human rights organizations like Amnesty International, including a raid by 100 troops on the Yamure monastery in Medro Gongkar county. Monks there were protesting peacefully against official restrictions on the sale and possession of photographs of the Dalai Lama, the title given to the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. At least 60 people were arrested in Phenpo Lhundrup county for similar protests. Nearly 60 others were detained in connection with a dispute over the recognition of a young boy as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second highest spiritual leader in Tibet. (Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is replaced by a young boy when Buddhist monks recognize a particular boy as the one who is destined to become the next Dalai Lama.)

Nor are the Chinese living in China allowed to freely practice their religion. All churches must be registered with the government. They cannot receive funding from any source outside of China, nor can they invite religious leaders from other countries to come to China (on rare occasions, with great oversight by Chinese security forces, ministers such as Billy Graham have been allowed to speak in China). People cannot even hold public religious ceremonies in their own homes, but some have created such "house churches" because they do not want to follow the strict guidelines of the Chinese government. Many religious leaders have been imprisoned in so-called "re-education" camps and have languished in them for years.

The Lopez Story

(The following is based on a real case of Guatemalan refugees to the U. S. Their names and some details have been changed.)

In the mid 1990s the Lopez family was living in a large city in the highlands of Guatemala. Jose and Anna Lopez had three young children and wanted the best life for them. Unfortunately, the Guatemalan government -- then and now -- was dealing harshly with anyone who criticized the way they ran the country. The government is at war with guerrillas who would forcibly overthrow the people in power and start a new government. Though the Lopez' did not support the guerrillas, they were also afraid of the government military forces.

One day some guerrillas came through the home town of the Lopez family and told the people that there was fertile farmland that they could move to without having to pay. Many families like the Lopez' packed up their belongings and went with the guerrillas to the northern part of Guatemala, called El Peten.

When they arrived, the families were told that they could stake out the land they wanted to farm, but that they would be asked to give a portion of their harvest to the guerrillas. Many families agreed, and they saw that the land was very good for growing their traditional crops and that their children were safe in the countryside.

After several months, the Lopez' heard that all of the members of another family who lived nearby had disappeared. Weeks later, they heard that the bodies of that family had been found, that they had all been murdered and buried in a single grave. Rumors spread that it was the Guatemalan military force who had come to punish the family for leaving their home in the city and living with the guerrillas.

Jose decided to hide his family. He sent them to different parts of the countryside while he stayed at home to tend the crops. But after several days, Anna and her children hadn't heard from Jose. Again they heard rumors that military forces were in the area. They heard that the soldiers put on civilian clothing to hide the fact that they were soldiers, but that often they still wore their boots. When the Lopez' returned home looking for Jose, they found their house burned down and Jose's dead body. They saw fresh bootprints all around their house and farm.

For months they traveled from friend to friend and neighbor to neighbor, fearing that the military forces would come back for them. Eventually, the two younger children were left with relatives, and Anna and the eldest daughter, Maria, returned home. Days later, Maria was attacked by six men in boots. She was beaten so badly that Anna took Maria out of Guatemala to Mexico, where they finally found a man whom they could pay to sneak them into the United States.

At first, the Immigration and Naturalization Service did not grant asylum to Anna and Maria. The INS said that they had no proof of Jose's death or about who had attacked Maria. Months later, after studying reports about how the Lopez tragedy was a very common one in Guatemala, the INS finally agreed that the murder of Jose Lopez and the attack on Maria was enough reason to believe that if the Lopez' were to return to Guatemala, they would be persecuted and perhaps even killed. Soon, Anna sent for her two other children to be brought to the United States.