Human Rights require Human Responsibilities

Apr 27


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Helen Whitten

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Human Rights require Human Responsibilities

In the last year I have been horrified by the amount of litter that has been left in the street and in beautiful parks such as Kew Gardens, near us.  Nappies, bottles, masks, picnic debris, all just left on the grass with seemingly no effort to clear it up. No thought for others.  It has made me think again, as I have thought for some time, that we would benefit from bringing in an Act of Human Responsibilities.  For with rights must surely come responsibilities.  Yet I don’t hear this message either from government or from teachers here in the UK.  Perhaps you do?

I heard about the concept of Human Responsibilities on the radio a few weeks ago when an Asian doctor was talking about the difference in how the West has managed lockdowns (or not) and how it was enforced in Asia.  He pointed out that the demand for personal freedom and liberty could impinge on the greater good of the community and that the West were backward in their thinking about this.  He said that those in Asia accepted the need for the greater good more readily than we do.  I am sure he is right.

Speaking personally, I am certainly not ready to accept the degree of authoritarian rule that we have witnessed in lockdowns in the Far East where the army were out on the street with guns to ensure compliance.  However, I do question whether there couldn’t be a happy balance between our perhaps sometimes selfish insistence on individual freedoms and actually being forced to comply with a gun at our head.  This with a view to maintaining reasonable individual freedom at the same time as taking action that is considerate to others.  Am I expecting too much?

Covid-19 has been a test of how authoritarian a democratic government can become in an emergency such as a pandemic.  Inevitably a population tends to accept curfews and limitations on their freedom in wartime but this was a war against an invisible enemy and although most people abided by the rules, some kicked at the traces and continued to party.  So how does one influence those who behave in this way without bringing in the military?  In an era of climate change, of cancellations, and of sexual harassment in schools, this is particularly pertinent.  There are standards of individual behaviour that can have a truly negative outcome for others.

It struck me that the Asian doctor had an important point in questioning whether the gift of an Act of Human Rights should not always be accompanied by a Declaration of the Duties and Responsibilities by those who benefit from those Rights.  And I wondered why, as he mentioned, this suggestion had not been acted upon before.

So, I did some research and found that the State of Victoria, New South Wales, Australia in 2006 and the South African Government in 2008, had, indeed, applied a Bill of Human Responsibilities, where, in South Africa, the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, had launched the Bill of Responsibilities Campaign on 23 March 2011.  And the latter, in particular, makes excellent reading.

In the light of cancel culture and of bullying and harassment in schools, the following clauses stood out to me as helpful messages for young people in particular, in that it is basically saying:

If I have the right to human dignity then I have the responsibility to treat others with reverence, respect and dignity, be kind, compassionate… speak courteously.

If I have the right to life then I have the responsibility not to endanger the lives of others by carrying dangerous weapons, acting recklessly or disobeying our rules and laws.  I have a responsibility to live a healthy life, by exercising, eating correctly… not abusing alcohol or taking drugs…

If I have a right to freedom and security then I have the responsibility not to hurt, bully or intimidate others…

If I have the right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion then I have the responsibility to allow others to choose and practice the religion of their choice and to hold their own beliefs and opinions, without fear or prejudice.  To respect the beliefs and opinions of others and their right to express these, even when we may strongly disagree with these beliefs and opinions ourselves…

If I have the right to equality then I have the responsibility to treat every person equally and fairly and not discriminate unfairly against anyone on the basis of race, gender, religion, national, ethnic or social origin, disability, culture, language, status or appearance.  It continues here to say that “as a diverse nation … equality does not mean uniformity or that we are all the same …but calls on all of us to build a common sense of belonging and national pride, celebrating the very diversity which makes us who we are…calling on us to extend our friendship and warmth to all nations and all the peoples of the world in our endeavour to build a better world.”

There is more but I found these snippets inspiring and wondered why we didn’t focus more on values, ethics and behaviours in our education system, for these are both human rights and human responsibilities and can benefit a whole society.  It just takes a little more thought and action. I know that this discussion does take place in leadership training in organisations.

For, surely, what we are talking here is about building character.  This concept seems to have been lost, somewhat, in education while the league tables of academic achievement took precedence to behaviour.  But one can be very clever and not be wise.  Indeed, one can be very clever and actually be evil, so the teaching of values through debate and discussion are truly worthwhile subjects for school children.  This is particularly relevant, now, when we know that black children still feel discriminated against, and when some boys in schools seem to be treating girls in a thoroughly bullying and disrespectful way.

To continue this theme, I wondered also whether the concept of the Four Agreements, as identified by Miguel Ruiz, would not also be worth considering:

  1. Be impeccable with your word (a good one for politicians, perhaps?) What we say determines the person we are, how others see us and how we see ourselves.
  2. Don’t take anything personally (a good one for those who too easily take offence, perhaps?)  Ruiz suggests that those who are easily offended believe they are at the centre of everything. 
  3. Don’t make assumptions (a good one for those who think in binary terms, perhaps?) Gain truth, facts and clarity, as without these misunderstandings are inevitable.
  4. Always do your best (a good one for us all, perhaps?) 

Being reminded of ‘wise action’ encourages us to behave better.  The anonymity of social media, the introduction of human rights, together with the liberalisation of social norms (since I was a child) can lead us on a downward slope of “me me me” and would it not be good now to have a Bill of Responsibilities to encourage a little more “us us us”?  It might even help clear up the litter problem.

“Discuss,” as Professor Richard Dawkins (now cancelled) would say…

The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz


2 Responses

  1. Hi Helen, and thanks for your mail after your last posting. In fact, I always read your articles, and they are always really interesting, and extremely well written. This article has wonderful ideas, and they deserve to be pondered, and acted upon. So thanks, and keep up the good work. Hope you are both very well. Much love, Lois

    1. Thanks Lois, and one more I just found regarding the right to a safe environment equates to having ‘a responsibility to promote sustainable development, and the conservation and preservation of the natural environment, protect animal and plant life and be obliged in the context of climate change to ensure we do not waste scarce resources like water and electricity’. Brilliant messages and to make everyone accept it as a voluntary responsibility for action really makes sense to me but needs to be taught in order to raise awareness of these responsibilities.

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