A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities?

Eleanor Roosevelt holds a copy of the English draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in this 1948 photo (credit: UN photo)

Dec. 10, 2012 – On this day, 64 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Paris. The document, whose 30 articles form the bedrock of the international human rights system, has been translated into a record 402 languages since.

While there are criticisms of the UDHR – that it emphasizes political and civil rights over economic, social and cultural rights; that it fails to mention minorities or people with disabilities; and, more generally, that it is a Western construct – it has exerted significant moral and legal influence over the past six decades.

One of the more interesting propositions in recent years – while not a direct criticism of the UDHR – is that the concept of rights have become so ingrained in society (specifically in Western society) that citizens increasingly ignore their duties and responsibilities as members of society.

The idea of a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities was first put forward in 1997 and championed by former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, but the proposal was never acted on by the UN General Assembly – and it’s unlikely to gain traction in the near future. The most significant criticism of the draft declaration is that its 19 articles would embolden autocratic rulers who’d use it to crackdown on people seeking their legitimate rights. Article 14 of the draft also raises significant concerns for a free press.

Nevertheless, the notion of equating human rights with human responsibilities is an interesting one, and some of the articles in the draft human responsibilities declaration – particularly on climate change, sustainable development, and domestic violence – tackle issues not addressed in the original UDHR.

The full-text of the draft Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald 

To know more about the the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights you should read Mary Ann Glendon’s book A World Made New