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Human Rights and Human Responsibilities: A Necessary Balance?
by Mia Giacomazzi
The resistance to the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities stems from the belief by some states and most human rights activists that the Responsibilities Declaration will weaken the issue of human rights. Concerns arose that oppressive regimes might readily embrace the concept of human responsibilities as a substitute for the advancement of human rights. Further, Article 14 of the Declaration of Human Responsibility drew attacks from the Western media who were concerned about the freedom of press.
The InterAction Council has consistently maintained that the exercise
of responsibility is essential for the full implementation of human rights.
The original motivation behind the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities
was based on the notion that human rights and human responsibilities were
complementary. Indeed, the initial objective was to have the Responsibilities
Declaration presented to the U.N. General Assembly for adoption as a resolution
on the 50th Anniversary on the Human Rights Declaration. Without Western
support, however, this goal was not realized.
As previously noted, the concept of human responsibility was only new to some regions of the world. As Oscar Arias Sanchez noted in April 1997, "[M]any societies have traditionally conceived of human relations in terms of obligations rather than rights. This is true, in general terms, for instance for much of Eastern thought. While traditionally in the West the concepts of freedom and individuality have been emphasized, in the East the notions of responsibility and community have prevailed. The fact that a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted instead of a Universal Declaration of Human Duties undoubtedly reflects the philosophical and cultural background of the document's drafters who, as is known, represented the Western powers who emerged victorious from the Second World War."14
Believing that a world in which everyone demands rights but does not accept responsibilities will be an unequal and even dangerous and discordant world, Takeo Fukuda of Japan formed the InterAction Council in 1983. Soon thereafter, members began to explore the possibility of establishing a common ethical standard. After meetings with several groups, the InterAction Council was encouraged that some ethical standards spanned all political and religious beliefs.15
Chairperson Helmut Schmidt explained, "The initiative to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities is not only a way of balancing freedom with responsibility, but also a means of reconciling ideologies and political views that were deemed antagonistic in the past. The basic premise, then, should be that humans deserve the greatest possible amount of freedom, but also should develop their sense of responsibility to its fullest in order to correctly administer their freedom."16
The Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities is organized in five partsfundamental principles for humanity, non-violence and respect for life, justice and solidarity, truthfulness and tolerance, and mutual respect and partnership. The Responsibilities Declaration covers many subjects including marriage, property, professionals, and the media.17 Endorsers and supporters of the document hail from every corner of the globe.
The declaration by the InterAction Council is not an isolated document. It fulfils the urgent call by important international bodies for global ethical standards made in chapters of the reports both of the UN Commission on Global Governance (1995) and the World Commission on Culture and Development (1995). The same topic has also been discussed for a long time at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos and similarly in the new UNESCO Universal Ethics Project. Increasing attention is also being paid to it in Asia.18 A UNESCO plan for a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities was also devised in March 1997.19
The UNESCO-Cousteau Society Meeting of Experts proposed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for Future Generations in 1994. Recognizing that future generations also have rights, the declaration imposes duties on each generation in order to preserve rights for the future. Outlining a prohibition of future discrimination, Article 12 asserts that each "generation must undertake not to adopt any measure which might lead in future to discrimination of any kind."20 Similarly, Article 13 outlines that each "generation must always ensure that the rights of those belonging to figure generations are fully safeguarded and are not sacrificed for the sake of expediency of interests."21
In 1999, The UN General Assembly adopted resolution 53/144, entitled "Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms."22 The Declaration of Human Rights and Responsibility presents affirmative duties on states to take measures to promote understanding of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.23 The 1999 Declaration also imposes affirmative duties on individuals, non-governmental organizations, and institutions to promote understanding, tolerance, and peace.24
The concerns expressed by states and human rights activists center around three main issues. First, there is a concern that oppressive regimes will misuse the Responsibilities Declaration. Secondly, members of the media feel that Article 14 may infringe upon the freedom of the press. Finally, there are some misgivings over who is responsible for adhering to the morals prescribed within the Responsibilities Declaration.
Misuse of Responsibilities Declaration
As earlier expressed, some Western states are concerned that oppressive regimes may misuse the Responsibilities Declaration. The perception is that regimes may point to the concept of human responsibilities as a substitute for the advancement of human rights. In response, Hans Kung counters that while responsibilities can be misused, so too can rights.26 He concludes that this is no reason to reject the concept traditional in Confuscianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.27
Freedom of Press
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities states: The freedom of the media to inform the public and to criticize institutions of society and governmental actions, which is essential for a just society, must be used with responsibility and discretion. Freedom of the media carries a special responsibility for accurate and truthful reporting. Sensational reporting that degrades the human person or dignity must at all times be avoided. Members of the media are concerned that this article infringes on the freedom of the press. Specifically, the concern centers around who would be the judge of what is accurate and truthful reporting.
In response, Kalevi Sorsa expressed to the International Press Institute, "The freedom of the press or of a journalist is guaranteed in a modern constitutional state. There is the right to report freely. The state must support this right and, if necessary, act to enforce it. The state and the citizen have the responsibility to respect that right. However, the right to report freely does not impinge on the responsibility of being truthful and fair of the journalist or of the media."28
Levels of Ethical Behavior
Traditionally, human rights are conceived in terms of obligations of states to individuals. The ethical code suggested by the InterAction Council considers at least four dimensions of human actionsobligations between persons; obligations between nations; obligations toward the planet; obligations toward ourselves. The debate on this subject is rich.
Eleanor Roosevelt: 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 neighbourhood 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 concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." 29
United Nations High Commission for Human Rights: We must all act when human rights are violated. States as well as the individual must take responsibility for the realization and effective protection of human rights.30
Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations: I will be a champion of human rights and will ensure that human rights are fully integrated in the action of the Organization in all other domains. Human rights, indeed, cut across all the work of the United Nations, from peacekeeping, child rights, health and development to the rights of indigenous peoples to education, social development and the eradication of poverty. Consultations have already taken place among all agencies and programmes of the United Nations, leading to strategies and campaigns being devised.31
His Holiness the Dalai Lama: If we aim to be happy, we should acknowledge that others also desire to achieve happiness. If we believe we should have a right to be happy, others should also have the same right. If we wish that others help us achieve happiness, we must be committed to helping others achieve their own happiness. 32
Over 50 years ago, the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights found that indeed there were principles underlying the draft declaration in many cultural and religious traditions. They also found that these principles were not always expressed as rights. Instead, some cultures operate upon the understanding that people also have duties to themselves, each other, their community and their world. Apart from Article 29, however, the concept of responsibility was removed from the final draft. It is now essential to revisit the topic. In order to create a more balanced approach that truly spans all cultures and belief systems, a Responsibilities Declaration may now be a necessary complement to the Rights Declaration.
Responsibilities must be conceived as correlative to rights. Such a premise would be well served by the drafting of a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities as an indispensable companion to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Western discourse on human rights works within the invisible boundaries of self-expression and resistance to authority (the individualist ethos that gives rise to consumer absolutism and all forms of permissiveness), and without sense of responsibility to the well-being and needs of the community. The notion of protecting the individual is a great advance over its absolutist antecedents, but it needs to be balanced by the acknowledgement that the individual is embedded within a community. The importance of placing limits upon human assertiveness at all levels of social organization is overlooked if the stress is placed only on the protection of individuals. 33
Suggested Reading List
2. Summary Repot of the Steering Committee Meeting on the Dissemination of the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, Chaired by Malcom Fraser, March 20-21, 1998, available at www.interactioncouncil.org
25. This section is meant to identify, rather than discuss, the concerns of the Responsibilities Declaration. These issues will be more fully addressed by the panel members of the Human Rights and Human Responsibilities Symposium on April 1, 2005 at Santa Clara University.