Universal Human Rights and the Ethics of Government

From The Island President collection, lesson plan 2 of 2

Grade Levels: High School (9–12 grade), Community College, Youth Development Organizations

Time: (90 minutes + assignment)

Subject Areas: Social Studies, Human Rights, World History/Cultures, Government, Sociology, Ethics, Economy, Current Events, Language Arts

Purpose of the Lesson: The opening scenes of The Island President chronicle the democratic movement in the Maldives and the human rights violations for which its longstanding autocratic regime was responsible. The Maldivian story is merely the latest of many historical struggles between disenfranchised citizens and abusive governments. This lesson explores the basic premise of human rights, the history of human rights abuse — both legislative and executive/military — and its consequences, human rights in the contemporary media, and the application of human rights issues to modern American life.


Students will:

  • Understand what is meant by a human right and create a Declaration of Human Rights using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a guide
  • Understand leadership strategies around human rights advocacy
  • Apply critical viewing and note-taking skills
  • Examine the role of personal responsibility in protecting human rights
  • Develop a strategy to improving human rights around the world and in their communities

Skills: Discussion and group brainstorm, analyzing media content and interpreting media messages, small group collaboration, research, argumentative writing, oral presentation


Note: All Teacher and Student Handouts can be downloaded by clicking on “Download materials” button at the left of this page

  • The Island President Film Module 3 “Maldives Democracy Movement” (15:56 minutes)
  • LCD projector or DVD player
  • Video production equipment (smart phone video cameras are a viable option)
  • Pens and writing paper
  • Whiteboard/blackboard and markers/chalk
  • Computers with internet access
  • Assorted art supplies and/or desktop publishing software


Common Core: Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

Writing Standards 6–12: 4. (9–10, 11–12) Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)

Speaking and Listening Standards 6–12: 1. (9–10, 11–12) Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies

INDIVIDUALS, GROUPS, AND INSTITUTIONS (5.): Institutions such as families and civic, educational, governmental, and religious organizations exert a major influence on people’s lives. This theme allows students to understand how institutions are formed, maintained, and changed, and to examine their influence.


Time: 40 minutes

You will need: pens/pencils, paper, Student Handout B: Film Synopsis, LCD projector or DVD player

Online Resources:

Goal: Examine the concept of human rights through brainstorming and a review of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Using the class discussion as a guide, create a Class Declaration of Human Rights.

Part 1: Fundamental Human Rights

  • Write the following question on the board and give students five minutes to write as many responses as they can:

    • “What are your human rights?”
  • Ask for volunteers to share their responses and record key words or phrases on the board. Discuss the students feedback using the following prompts for guidance:

    • Does everyone have the same human rights as you?
    • Should everyone have the same human rights?
    • Do people in other countries have the same rights that we do? Why or why not?
    • Who gives us our rights? Are we born with them?
    • Who protects our rights?
  • Next, instruct the students to work in groups and give them 10 minutes to develop a list of five rights that they feel should be available to everyone regardless of their country of origin, race, class, gender, age, or religion.

  • Ask each group to share their results and record them in a collective Classroom Declaration of Human Rights.

Part 2: Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • Introduce the Plain Language version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Human Rights Factsheet and ask the students to review and discuss with their group using the following question prompts:

    • How are these rights similar to/different than our classroom’s version of the Declaration of Human Rights?
    • Is there anything in here that surprises you?
    • Are there any rights in here that you do not have access to?
    • Who enforces these rights?
    • Would you like to refine/edit our Classroom’s Declaration based on what you have read? If so, what changes would you make?
  • Make final revisions to the Declaration and make sure it is displayed where the students can review it. Ask them to keep this activity in mind while viewing the film module.


(Note: These are the same pre-screening questions from Lesson 1: Global Climate + The Ethics of Industry)

  • Distribute Student Handout B: Film Synopsis. Once the students have reviewed the summary explain that they will watch a brief excerpt from the film. Use the following prompts to guide discussion:
    • What do you expect to learn by watching this film? What expectations do you have of the story?
    • What is the difference between a narrative and documentary film?
    • Have you ever seen a documentary film? If so, what was it about? Do you have a favorite documentary? What do you like about it?
    • Who is a world leader (past or present) or political figure that you admire? What about his/her leadership do you like? What questions would you ask of him/her if given the opportunity?
    • What do you know about the archipelago nation of the Maldives?


Time: 20 minutes

You will need: pens/pencils, writing paper, Film Module 3: “Maldives Democracy Movement,” LCD projector or DVD player

Instruct students to take notes while watching the film module and record quotes that illustrate the ways that human rights were being violated, fought for, or protected in the Maldives.


Time: 50 minutes

You will need: pens/pencils, white/black board, writing paper

Goal: Students will participate in a guided discussion about The Island President and consider how the human rights discussed in the prescreening activities have been both violated and protected in the Maldives recent history. They will examine the role of personal responsibility in protecting human rights and how they can contribute to improving human rights around the world and in their communities.

Part 1a: Discussion Questions

  • How would you characterize the Maldivian government prior to Nasheed’s democracy movement? To what extent was it democratic, if at all? To what extent was it totalitarian?
  • Under what pretense did Maumoon Abdul Gayoom maintain power throughout his ‘presidency’?
  • What are some ways in which the Gayoom regime was able to perpetuate itself for three decades?
  • In what ways did Gayoom use brute force to protect his political interests and control his populace?
  • In what ways did Gayoom use education to protect his political interests and indoctrinate his populace?
  • In what ways, if any, did the Maldives evolve politically during the Gayoom regime?
  • In what ways did the Maldives evolve economically during the Gayoom regime?
  • Can you think of another example of a dictatorship that you have studied in one of your classes? How does the situation in the Maldives compare? Are there any important similarities or differences that you can identify?

Part 1b: Continue the Discussion...

Select two or three questions from each section that are most applicable to your class curriculum goals and areas of study:

Gayoom’s Dictatorship

  • Ahmed Naseem: “He was like a mafia don.” (Module 3)
    • Discuss this quote. What characteristics does this imply about Gayoom’s leadership? How is it reflective of his regime? How would you describe the cinematic trope of the mafia don?
    • Based on what we saw in the film, what are some non-violent human rights violations that Gayoom was accused of being responsible for? What are some violent human rights violations that were discussed?
    • Why did Gayoom’s men arrest Nasheed in the middle of the night? How did Nasheed react? What were the consequences of Nasheed’s reaction?
    • How does Nasheed describe his time in the corrugated iron cell? How would you describe his word choice and demeanor in this scene?
    • How do you think Nasheed’s 18 months alone in a remote cell contributed to his personality? What effect, if any, do you suppose his time in solitary had on his political and ideological conviction?
    • How did the Gayoom regime respond to the public demonstrations? Do you think this was a good strategy? What impact did the Gayoom response likely have on public opinion?

Nasheed and the Democracy Movement

  • After his release, Nasheed makes the decision to form a political party. What risks were involved in this decision? What incentives?
  • What challenges were inherent to this decision? By what means did Nasheed rally political support for a dissenting party in the face of a regime that permitted neither assembly nor dissent? What effects did the longstanding suppression of political parties have on the collective perspective of the Maldivian public?
  • What event galvanized the democracy movement in the Maldives? By what means did the public become aware of it? To what extent did the democracy movement have foreign support?

  • President Maumoon Gayoom: “Calmly and obediently, return to your homes.” (Module 3)

  • Gayoom: “I’m not saying you are lying, but you are not well-informed.” (Module 3)

    • What do these two lines say about the character of Gayoom? How does he perceive his leadership role? What are his priorities? What are his values? How would you characterize his relationship with the Maldivian public?
    • Why does Nasheed decide to leave the Maldives as he is building his political party? Where does he go? What challenges does pursuing this endeavor abroad present? Does it present any advantages? In what ways is he still able to exert political pressure on the Gayoom regime?
  • President Mohamed Nasheed: “The tsunami wiped out 50 percent of GDP in an hour.” (Module 3)

    • In what ways did the 2004 tsunami, its devastating economic and environmental impact, and the response of the incumbent government to a disaster of such magnitude alter the political landscape in the Maldives? What other factors do you expect were influential in activating a more progressive attitude among Maldivians?
    • What was the core message of Mohamed Nasheed’s political movement against the Gayoom administration? What about this message was appealing to Maldivians?
    • By what means did Nasheed pursue his dissident campaign and political ambitions after returning to the Maldives from exile? What historical precedents exist for his public strategy? In leading efforts to exert pressure on the regime, what specific response was Nasheed seeking from Gayoom?
  • PMN: “We went into almost every single household, more than 52,000 homes. Even the most hardened of the regimes loyalists in the islands, they would listen.”

    • By what various means does Nasheed’s presidential campaign conduct outreach to the Maldivian electorate? Do you think Nasheed himself is well suited to a door-to-door campaign? Why or why not? In what ways did the Nasheed campaign use the internet to perpetuate its message?
    • What were some key tenets of the Nasheed campaign’s platform?
    • In what ways do you think Nasheed’s public persona among Maldivians was influenced by (a) his public demeanor, (b) his foreign credentials, and (c) his personal history with the incumbent regime?

The Maldives and Global and Local Human Rights

  • How would you describe the international reaction to Nasheed’s victory? How (and to what extent) was it covered in the global and/or American press?

  • President Nasheed: “Well, it’s a human right. We cannot not talk about our existence as a country. We’ve been there for the last 3,000 years. We have a culture, we have a language, we have a civilization.”

    • Why do you think President Nasheed frames the survival of the Maldives as a human rights issue? What do you think he specifically means by “it”? Is he referring to his people’s lives, or their lifestyles?
    • In February 2012, Mohamed Nasheed resigned the presidency under threat of violence from forces loyal to the Gayoom regime. What has ensued? What is the governmental status of the Maldives today? Where is Mohamed Nasheed and what is he up to?

Part 2: Human Rights Start at Home

Until they are enacted and enforced, human rights are just words on a page.

  • Instruct your students to work in pairs and read the following quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. Explain that she played a crucial role in developing and championing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
  • Ask each student to rewrite the quote and express what it means to them in their own words. They will then share with their partner and discuss the questions below:

    • “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Questions for discussion:

    • Who is responsible for protecting the rights and dignity of individuals?
    • Roosevelt said, “Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” What did she mean? How can our individual actions have a global impact?
    • How did the individual actions of the people depicted in The Island President give “meaning” to the rights listed in the UDHR?
    • In the quote Eleanor Roosevelt says that human rights begin “in small places, close to home.” What actions can we take every day to preserve the rights and dignity of people in our families, our schools, and our communities?


Select one or more of the following assignments:

Change the World By Empowering Your Community

What is the human rights landscape in our community, school, state, country? In what ways are the human rights outlined in the Universal Declaration being protected, denied, or violated? Are all the rights that we identified for our Classroom Declaration being enforced where we live or go to school?

Instruct students to work in groups to review the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and identify an issue in your community that could be improved by the enforcement of these rights. Develop a plan of action to raise awareness of this issue and its connection to human rights.

Some campaign ideas include any (or some combination) of the following:

  • Contact a human rights NGO about partnership opportunities
  • Conduct a fundraiser on behalf of a human rights NGO
  • Create a class website devoted to exhibiting the students’ human rights studies and projects
  • Write individual or class letters to your state and/or federal representatives
  • Start a print awareness campaign around campus (posters, stickers, etc.)
  • Host an awareness and/or charity event for families, other classes, or the local community

Produce a Human Rights PSA Series

Divide the class into a few small groups and ask each to select a global human rights issue or a nation facing regular human rights abuse.

  • Instruct each group to write a brief (30-100 second) video PSA script that addresses the selected topic and delegate roles including performers, narrators, production crew, etc.
  • Students can practice their oratory and media production skills while imparting information about their desired nation or issue.
  • Upon completion, these PSAs can be shared (or edited together) among the group or beyond; they can even be included in a class presentation, documentary production, or website.

Establish a Classroom News Feed

  • Sign up for an internet news feed devoted to the national situation(s) or global human rights issue(s) you wish to follow.
  • Ask students to review the feed throughout the week and write a journal entry every Friday about a story or issue that had an impact on them.
  • Schedule a discussion circle at the end of every month where the students break into groups and discuss an issue from one of their journal entries.


Create a Human Rights World Map

First, as a class, make a list of the most common types of human rights abuses. In what ways are women’s rights regularly abused in some nations? In what ways are other minorities’ rights violated? Assign each type you identify a different color. Divide into a few small groups, and assign each group a continent. Each group researches the human rights situation in the countries that make up their designated continent. Then, collaborate by filling in a blank world map according to your predetermined color code. Countries where multiple violations are at issue can be striped with multiple colors as necessary. Reflect on the completed map together. How does it compare to your expectations? What surprised you about the information presented? If you could donate millions in human rights support to one nation only, which would you select and why?

Interview a Refugee

Find a political (or environmental) refugee in your school or local community to interview. This could be anyone permanently displaced from their home by factors completely outside of their control. In some cases, the relative of such an individual may be more appropriate or available to interview. Invite this individual to be interviewed in a mutually agreeable place. Select a few students to conduct the interview. Collaborate as a class to prepare appropriate questions for the interviewee, pertinent to your educational objectives. Do whatever research you can to help inform your preparation level. Try to ascertain the political, economic, and/or military situation in your subject’s home nation and the reasons he/she were in need of refuge. Discuss with your subject the state of civil society in the nation then and now, the overall experience of his/her emigration, and his/her perspective on the premise of human rights.

NOTE: Interviewing refugees about traumatic experiences is sensitive, and must be handled with care. Be sure to set appropriate ground rules with the class prior to taking on this lesson; this resource can provide guidance.


A Global Perspective on Human Rights

  • What are some of the most famous examples of human rights abuse in world history? How would you characterize the governments and individuals that were responsible for these human rights abuses? To what extent were they perpetuated on an “unofficial” basis? To what extent were they legislative in nature?
  • How would you characterize American history with regard to human rights?
  • To what extent were human rights issues critical to American independence from colonial rule? In what ways has the United States government’s commitment to human rights set a groundbreaking example for other nations?
  • What are some historical examples of the United States government sanctioning and/or committing violations of basic human rights? What about the American public? What about U.S. corporations?
  • Are human rights legislated differently among different U.S. states? If so, how?
  • Compare and contrast the human rights movement in the Maldives with the civil rights movement in the United States. What differences are most notable? What similarities?
  • Can you identify any measurable impacts that human rights violations have had on your community? Are there any ethnic minorities in your community with refugee heritage? To what extent do the most egregious U.S. human rights violations (slavery, Asian American internment, segregation) resonate in your community?

  • What countries are currently struggling with some form of governmental oppression?

    • What human rights are being violated?
    • Among which groups or demographics?
    • To what extent is international intervention underway, if any?
  • What are some ways you can contribute to human rights efforts globally? Research some of the key articles ratified in the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR):

    • Article 2: right to life
    • Article 3: prohibition of torture
    • Article 4: prohibition of slavery
    • Article 5: right to liberty and security
    • Article 6: right to a fair trial
    • Article 8: right to privacy
    • Article 9: freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
    • Article 10: freedom of expression
    • Article 11: freedom of association
    • Article 14: prohibition of discrimination
  • What political considerations do you expect impacted the priorities of the European nations who participated in this agreement?

  • What historical events were they trying to prevent from recurring in the future?
  • What were the perceived threats to global human rights in post-WWII Europe?
  • What role did the United States play in these international negotiations?
  • How do these international articles compare to the U.S. Bill of Rights?
  • Do you agree that all of the human rights listed previously (or in the complete treaties) belong in a universal agreement? Why or why not? Are there any rights that you believe were wrongly omitted from these treaties? If so, what are they?
  • Which of the basic human rights listed previously do you feel the most passionate about?
  • If you had to live in a country where only one or two of these human rights were guaranteed by the government, which two would you choose? Why? Alternatively, which of the listed human rights do you value least? Why?
  • In your opinion, what is the best way to combat systemic human rights infractions?
  • Historically, what factors have prevented people from combating governmental oppression? What factors have empowered them to combat the human rights abuse to which they were subjected? What means have proved most successful?
  • What have been the key factors driving sovereign nations to pursue agreement on basic human rights laws and to empower international authorities to enforce them?
  • Which instances of mass oppression and genocide were these treaties and conventions a reaction to?
  • To what extent do you think the coincidental advent of mass media technologies contributed to the cultural shift toward a collective acknowledgement of the inherent and imperative nature of human right?
  • To what extent do you believe scientific progress contributed to this cultural shift in public awareness and governmental transparency?

2) Human Rights, Democracy, and the Maldives

  • What can you discover about the indigenous history of the Maldives?
  • What can you discover about the colonial history of the Maldives? How did the Maldives achieve independence from colonial rule?
  • To what extent do the founding documents of the Maldives address human rights?
  • How would you describe the first two presidential regimes in post-colonial Maldives?
  • How about their respective records on human rights?
  • What did you know about the Maldives prior to watching this film? What did you expect you would learn about the Maldives during the viewing? What did you actually learn?

Additional Resources

  • Film module:
    Maldives Democracy Movement

Download lesson materials