Activity 13: Literature and Human Rights:
Questions to Apply to Literature, Other Texts, and Media


The following questions help to put written material in a human rights perspective. Included are formal literature (e.g., poetry, fiction, non-fiction); educational texts (e.g., textbooks, manuals); media (e.g., print, electronic images, magazines, films, television); advertising (e.g., jingles, slogans), and commercial publications (e.g., promotional literature, pamphlets, logos, slogans).


PART A: Questions

1. What human rights themes appear in this work?

  • What rights are enjoyed?

  • Are human rights in conflict?

  • Are human rights denied? Who is responsible for this human rights abuse?

  • Who acts to defend human rights? How? Why?

  • Who does not act to defend human rights? Why not?

  • What specific articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are involved?

2. If human rights are defended in this work, what action is taken?

  • Does the act of defending a human right itself violate someone’s human rights?

  • Is the action effective?

  • Is the action violent? Could a non-violent response have been possible?

  • How might the outcome have been different if a different kind of action had been taken?

  • Will the action make a long-term change in individual lives? In society?

3. What does this work say about human dignity?

  • In what ways is human dignity affirmed? Undermined?

  • Does any character especially embody human dignity?

4. What does this work say about individual responsibility for human rights? About the relationship between rights and responsibility?

5. What role do the following factors play in this work, especially as a means to bring about transformation:

  • compassion?

  • consensus?

  • being able to express oneself?

  • silence?

  • collaboration with the perpetrator(s) or victimizer(s)?

  • collaboration with the defender(s) of rights?

  • having access to information and/or education?

  • understanding of and/or empathy with people with different values or ways of life?

6. Does this work contrast the needs of the individual with the needs of the majority and/or society?

  • What does this work say about the relationship between the individual and society? The individual and the state?

7. Are there similar human right issues in your country? your community? your neighborhood? your school or classroom?

  • What rights are enjoyed?

  • What rights are in conflict?

  • What rights do you feel need protection?

  • What specific articles of the UDHR are involved?

8. How can you act to defend rights in your community?

  • To whom would you speak? What would you say?

  • What kinds of actions would be effective and appropriate? Which would not?

  • Is such action already being taken?

  • Is it possible to form alliances to address these problems? With whom?

  • See Part IV, Taking Action for Human Rights, for more on community advocacy.

PART B: Suggestions for Activities

1. Research one of the authors. Are there particular events, people, or places that may have shaped their opinions on human rights?

2. Have a film discussion group.

Source: Nancy Flowers, Human Rights Educators’ Network, Amnesty International USA



Anna Akmatova "Requiem"
W.H. Auden "The Unknown Citizen"
Dennis Brutus "Cold," "Letters to Martha
Nina Cassian "They Cut Me in Two"
Ariel Dorfman "Hope"
Nazim Hikmet "From a Man in Solitary"
Phillip Lopate "Solidarity with Mozambique"
James Sheville "Confidential Data on the Loyalty Investigation of Herbert Ashenfoot"


Isabella Allende The House of the Spirits
Mulk Raj Anan Untouchable
Manlio Argueta One Day of Life
Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale
Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451
Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange
J.M. Coztzee Waiting for the Barbarians
Joseph Conrad Nostromo
Ariel Dorfman My House Is on Fire
Ralph Ellison Invisible Man
Nawal El Saadawi God Dies by the Nile
Louise Erdrich Tracks
Eduardo Galeano Memory of Fire Trilogy
Gangopadhyay Arjun
Nadine Gordimer July’s People
Jessica Hagedorn Dogeaters
Bessie Head When Rain Clouds Gather
Aldous Huxley Brave New World
Franz Kafka The Trial
Joy Kogawa Obasan
Arthur Koestler Darkness at Noon
Bernard Malamud The Fixer
Toni Morrison Beloved
Bharati Mukerjee Jasmine
George Orwell Animal Farm
George Orwell 1984
Alexander Solzhenitsyn One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch
John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath
Mildred Taylor Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Lawrence Thornton Imagining Argentina
Vasilis Vassilikos Z
Richard Wright Native Son
Emile Zola Germinal


Jean Annouilh Antigone
Bertholt Brecht Galileo
Andre Brink A Dry White Season
Arthur Miller The Crucible
Sophocles Antigone


Maya Angelou I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Nien Ching Life and Death in Shanghai
J.D. Criddle To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family
Carolina Maria De Jesus Child of the Dark
Vaclav Havel Letters to Olga
Arthur Koestler Spanish Testament
Nelson Mandela Long Walk to Freedom
Rigoberta Menchu I, Rigoberta Menchu
Pablo Neruda Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: "Toward the Splendid City"
George Orwell Selected Essays
Alicia Partnoy The Little School
Irina Ratushinskaya Grey is the Color of Hope
Moylda Szymuciak The Stones Cry Out, A Cambodian Childhood, 1975-1980
Jacob Timerman Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number
Elie Wiesel Night
Harry Wu Bitter Wind
Malcolm X The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Source: See "Teaching Human Rights through Literature," in Amnesty International USA’s Human Rights Education Resource Notebook Series for an extensive annotated list of literature for teaching human rights.



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