Rights and Obligations


One of the significant developments of the past century is the development of human rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘UDHR’) was a groundbreaking achievement, and has formed the starting point for many successful initiatives tackling injustice across the world.

But this focus on human rights also has a downside. Maybe another approach may have been more useful? It is arguable that concentrating on human rights, while it has produced a great amount of good, has been a side-track from a more productive perspective. Certainly, there are a number of problems associated with this approach.

[For some background to this article, see Freedom and Responsibility.]

Some Problems

One obvious problem with listing human rights is that you might miss one. Something you had not thought of becomes important (privacy is one recent example), but those who benefit from the status quo can point to the list of human rights and make the reasonable claim: there’s no problem here – none of your rights are being infringed, the thing you are asking for is not on the list.

Possibly a larger problem is that rights are toothless: you get no benefit from simply having a right.  All children have the right to education (UDHR Article 26), but how does that benefit a child growing up in the slums of some third world country?  You can’t even argue that you should be educated – without an education, you will never know that you have the right to an education in the first place.

Many people ask, quite reasonably, why only humans should have rights? In recent years, there has been an increasingly amount of time and energy devoted to the subject of animal rights – the belief that some animals, or perhaps all animals, also have rights which must be respected. And it is not just animals: if insects have rights, then surely all living creatures have some rights? And if living creatures have rights, we must inevitably also respect the environment which enables them to live.

It is hard to talk usefully about rights without facing the question of prioritising them, which the UDHR clearly avoids doing.  It is clear that, in a world with limited resources, we cannot give equal priority to every right – but, once we go down the path of prioritising them, we have accepted that some rights can be sidelined. If you place them all in order of priority, you are effectively left with just one human right and 27 aspirations for what might happen at some indeterminate point in the future.

In the context of the UDHR, talk of human rights makes sense: in the Preamble, we read that “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” But, outside this context, what does our talk about human rights mean? Who defines these rights? And who gives us these rights? Where do they come from?

Another problem with our focus on human rights is that it helps to create and perpetuate a ‘rights’ mentality, in which we cling to our rights at the expense of the happiness and well-being of others, and to the detriment of society as a whole. If I am repeatedly told only about the various rights I have, is it any surprise if I concentrate on my rights, and become more selfish and self-centred in the process?

Rights have to apply equally to everybody, or they’re not much use; they are intended to benefit the weak and poor, but far too often the people claiming and shouting about their rights are the strong and rich. After all, you have to possess some kind of strength if you are going to stand up against others for your rights.

Finally, if I have a right, I am morally entitled to claim it – but my rights and your rights are always in conflict: if I have the right to clean drinking water, you cannot have the right to dispose of your toxic chemicals in the stream I drink from. My rights, by definition, give me a moral entitlement to restrict what you do. A resource designed to empower the oppressed easily becomes yet tool for the oppressor to keep the weak doing what they are told.


When we focus only on human rights, we may miss a vital part of the picture: our obligations. When talking about the UDHR, the UN recognises that “the core principles of human rights … simultaneously entail both rights and obligations,” and these obligations are briefly mentioned in Article 29: “Everyone has duties to the community”.

We can talk about our rights but, as implied by the UDHR, in practice we only have rights if our nation recognises them. There are nine core international human rights treaties, and some United Nations member states have as yet only recognised one of them; only 80% have ratified four or more. We still have a long way to go.

The fundamental problem with rights is that they are needed by the weak, but can only be granted by the strong. If you are hungry, giving you the right to be fed is no benefit to you at all: what you need is not some right, but some food – and only the person who has the power to distribute food can help.

We can tell the poor that they have rights, we can tell the hungry that they have the right to be fed, but it will not make any difference to them. We can tell the rich and powerful that the poor have rights, that the hungry have the right to be fed, and they can shrug their shoulders. “That’s nice,” they often say, “someone should feed them.” Of course, not all rich people are like this. But it is probably fair to say that most are.

The only message which makes a difference is when we tell the rich and the powerful: you have obligations to the poor and weak. You have obligations to use your money and power to help those who do not have your resources. We have to make it clear to those with the ability to do something that their ability gives them the responsibility – not to solve all the problems of the world, and not to meet all the needs of the poor and weak, but simply to do what they can to help those who do not have the power to help themselves.

Every human right can be easily translated into a human obligation. And there is no problem with recognising that our obligations extend to the creatures we share our planet with, and to the planet we share with these creatures: these obligations are both moral and practical, because our survival depends upon them. I may not have much money, I may not have much power, but any money or power I have brings with it the obligation to use it well.

We need to be careful here, because hardly anybody considers themselves to be rich: when we talk about ‘the rich’, we almost always look up, to those who have more than we do; we hardly ever look down, at those who have less. “I’m not rich,” we say, “I deserve what I have; I worked for it, I’m entitled to it. I have the right to use my money the way I want to.”

This talk of obligations is not just a message to rich individuals – it is also a message to the citizens of rich countries. Those of us in the West are rich in global terms, however we feel when we compare ourselves with those around us. Anyone who can get clean water from a tap is rich, compared with someone who must walk an hour or two to collect muddy water from a creek. And anyone who has the ability to take things from others is strong, whether they take it through stealing or by more legal means.

Some people want to talk about wealthy countries having obligations towards poor countries because of past injustices, or because of past exploitation of mineral resources, or because of past fossil fuel use. These arguments have been going on for some time and, no doubt, they will continue for some time to come. But, whatever the merits of these argument, it is much simpler to recognise that wealthy countries have obligations towards poor countries simply because they are wealthy: they have the ability to help, so they also have the responsibility.

How these obligations should be put into practice is not easy, but it has already been described in a fair amount of detail - in the UDHR and the nine core international human rights treaties.  The UDHR and treaties become even more important and relevant when we recognise what they are telling us about: not the rights of the weak, but the obligations of the strong.

[See also Freedom]


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