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‘Human rights’ is increasingly becoming a convenient buzzword. But are human rights the solution to our woes or is there more to it?
If we are turn to a legal-philosophical study of human rights, we might find ourselves as humans to be confused, educated, frustrated and refreshed all at the same time.
History provides another perspective. It tells us that the idea behind human rights has come a long way. Dr Augusto Zimmerman, author of the book Western Legal Theory and Vice-president of the Australian Society of Legal Philosophy, writes that, “The modern roots of our individual rights and freedoms in the Western world are found in Christianity.”
On the other hand, the term ‘human rights’ itself is relatively new. It came into everyday use since the end of the Second World War when the world woke to the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The founding of the United Nations in 1945 and the adoption of the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 greatly strengthened the cause of human rights.
But what about duties and responsibilities?
Our Constitution proclaims in section 3(2) that we as citizens are entitled to the rights of citizenship and that we are subject to the duties of citizenship. Article 29 of the UDHR states that “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” The less well-known Declaration of Responsibilities and Human Duties declares in Article 2(7) that “all individuals ... have the duty and responsibility to respect [the rights] of others...” It also says in Article 15 that we “all have a duty to expose corruption in both the public and private sectors.”
Human rights and human duties are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. We have the right to vote, and so we have the duty to vote. We have the right to demonstrate or to picket, but then we have to duty to do so peacefully. We have the right to private property and hence we have a duty to take care of our property and respect the property of others. Learners have a right to basic education and therefore they have a duty to make the most of their education.
The challenges we face in the world and in our local communities will not be solved by solely relying on the aid of human rights. If human rights are to form part of the solution then we must also take up our human duties.
As the great writer G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1917, “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”
Although we have human rights which give us certain freedoms, if we abuse those rights and ignore our human duties then we will create a world of chaos and lawlessness and a mind-set of dependence and entitlement. When we glorify human rights to the exclusion of human duties, we may find that we have lost the very freedom we hold so dear.