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Foto: Human Rights Lens/Vardø vgs

Which right is the most important?

Is having a roof over your head more important than having the opportunity to express your views? In this exercise the participants must take a stand on different statements, and reflect over whether human rights are indivisible and mutually dependent.

Photo: Human Rights Lens/Vardø vgs

Quick facts

activity topic
Human rights
Target audience for the activity
High school • Organizations and others
Activity duration
Ca 1 hours
Materials: Two large sheets of paper with “Agree” on one and “Disagree” on the other.

Activity goals

  • Acquire knowledge about civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.
  • Reflect on human rights as indivisible and mutually dependent.
Background of the activity
The activity is based on “Where do you stand?”, Compass, European Council (2002).


Read the article “Are economic, social and cultural rights fundamentally different from civil and political rights?” (UN)


  • The facilitator explains that human rights are often divided into categories:
    • Civil rights protect life, integrity, freedom of religion, due process, private and family life, and freedom of speech, assembly, association and movement.
    • Political rights protect the right to take part in governing a country through the right to vote and the right to stand for election.
    • Economic rights protect the right to work, to establish and join labour unions, to strike and to have a sufficient living standard.
    • Social rights protect the individual’s right to unemployment, sickness and disability benefits, and benefits for other circumstances not controlled by the individual.|
    • Cultural rights protect the right to pursue an education, to participate in cultural life, to share in scientific advancement and to have moral and material interests protected.
  • Traditionally there has been a distinction between civil and political rights (1st generation rights), on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights (2nd generation rights), on the other. There is an on-going discussion on which rights are most important.
  • In 1948 the UN member states adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document was the start of the modern international human rights system. For the first time it was laid down that human rights are mutually dependent. Even though the 30 rights in the Declaration are meant to constitute a whole, when the document was to be followed up by a set of legally binding rules, not one but two conventions were written. One of the reasons was that the rights are somewhat different in their nature. Briefly put, more resources are required to guarantee economic and social rights – such as decent working conditions, education, health services and a satisfactory living standard – than are required to protect freedom of expression, religion and the right to vote.
  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) therefore lays down that states are obliged to guarantee these rights immediately after ratification, while the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights (ICESCR) lays down that the rights may be progressively achieved bearing in mind the economic conditions in the countries in question.
  • The facilitator places the paper sheet with “Agree” on one side in the room, and the other sheet with “Disagree” on the opposite side. The participants then stand in a straight line between the two. Alternatively, the facilitator may mark a line with chalk or a string.
  • The facilitator reads out or shows various statements on screen. After individual reflection the participants must take a stand on these statements by walking towards the paper sheets saying “Agree” or “Disagree”. It is also possible to stand in the middle or close to the alternative that the participant agrees with the most.
  • When everyone has made up their mind, the facilitator opens for discussion. Examples of statements:
    • It is more important to have a roof over your head than to have freedom of expression.
    • People have an obligation to work, but do not have the right to have a job.
    • The right to rest and leisure time is a luxury only rich countries can afford.
    • The state is not responsible for ensuring that people do not starve.
    • Extreme economic inequality is a breach of fundamental human rights.
    • Social and economic rights are an ideal for the future, but the world is not ready to realise these rights today.
    • If rights cannot be guaranteed, there is no point in having them.
    • Some rights are more important than others.


  • What do you think about this exercise?
  • Was it difficult to choose sides? Why do you think it was difficult?
  • Did anyone change sides along the way?
  • Are there any correct answers, or are there only personal opinions?
  • Do we need more rights? Should there be a third generation of rights?


It is challenging to agree with some of these statements, and that is intentional. It is difficult to argue for the importance of one right over another. Many people see it as just as degrading to not have a place to sleep as it is to not have freedom of expression.

The conclusion is that human rights are mutually dependent. To live a dignified life we need them all.

(English translation: John Anthony)