Rights Without Responsibilities?
“RECOGNITION of the inherent dignity and of equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Thus states the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which marked its 50th anniversary in December 1998. Recently, though, 24 former presidents and prime ministers, representing all continents, have suggested that in addition to that declaration, a universal declaration of human responsibilities should be adopted by the United Nations. Why do many feel the need for such a project?
“Rights and responsibilities are Siamese twins. Sadly, half a century later, this fact has been forgotten or become unseemly. Many demand their rights without feeling the need to keep related responsibilities,” explains Professor Jean-Claude Soyer, member of the European Commission for Human Rights. This neglect of duties is felt by many. “There is a palpable yearning, especially among the young, for some kind of unifying vision, a set of acknowledged ideals with which to address and tame the mechanics of greed, of selfishness, of loss of community, which seem to be taking over the world. . . . This mounting debate about the need for a global ethic is an admission that something is missing,” notes the Paris daily International Herald Tribune. Consequently, politicians, theologians, and philosophers have been discussing a “universal ethics project,” as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization calls it, to fill the gap and determine what human responsibilities are. However, they have encountered some difficulty.
While it is relatively easy to determine which human rights should be protected, it is not always easy to define which human responsibilities should be universally accepted. However, some of the values in the proposed Declaration of Responsibilities find their inspiration in the timeless and universal Golden Rule, given by Jesus some two thousand years ago: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.”—Matthew 7:12.
While the Bible has often been the inspiration behind laws protecting human rights, it stresses the notion of personal responsibility. “If one knows how to do what is right and yet does not do it, it is a sin for him,” declared the disciple James. (James 4:17) Just as Jesus looked for ways to do good to others, true Christians also try to do good to their fellowman. Not content with simply exercising their rights, they appreciate that with rights come responsibilities and that each of us is responsible to God for his own actions.