We Need Human Rights, and Human Rights Need Us – The Call for Individual Action in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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Seventy-two years ago today, the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. To this day, this document remains our quintessential guide when it comes to human rights protection. That is why every year, on  December 10, we celebrate ‘Human Rights Day’. What is often forgotten, however, is that the Universal Declaration, aside from a list of rights, also includes a call for individual action.

In human rights law, it is, in the first place, States that have obligations. However, human rights also imply duties and responsibilities for individuals. This is only logical: the right to life would be worthless without the duty to respect that right, and the right not to be tortured would be meaningless without the duty not to torture anyone else. We therefore punish violations of these duties worldwide, under criminal law.

Robinson Crusoe

It is therefore also not illogical that article 29(1) of the Universal Declaration contains a reference to individual duties:

Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible’.

At the time when the Universal Declaration was being drafted, various representatives stressed the importance of community. The Belgian representative, however, voiced reservations about this. One had only to think, he argued, of Robinson Crusoe, who, even though he was alone on an island, certainly managed to develop his personality! Another member of the preparatory committee, however, replied to the Belgian representative that, if there is one thing we could learn from Robinson, it is that he saved himself with the products of organized society – tools and books – which he had managed to save from his shipwreck. Therefore, without society, Robinson Crusoe would have truly been lost!

The philosophical discussion about a fictional character – about which, incidentally, there are several comments to be made in the context of the current-day decolonization movement – is amusing, of course, but the crux of the matter was then, and still is, serious.

Indeed, article 29 of the Universal Declaration, which acts as an interpretative lens for understanding the rights listed in the Declaration, manifests an important logic: a democratic society can only function, and therefore protect human rights, if we ourselves are willing to participate in it. As René Cassin, the well-known French representative, asked: if we assume that there is a right to food, but everyone invokes this right, and no one invokes the obligation to work, how can we, as a community, provide for our food needs? Obligations rooted in human rights can take various concrete forms. These include, for example, paying reasonable taxes so that the State can organize health care, or wearing a face mask, so that you don’t infect your neighbors or colleagues.

In addition, there is also something which we may call ‘individual responsibility’. This is something different than the clearly defined obligations imposed by the State, mentioned above. Individual responsibility, in a human rights context, means that everyone who believes in his or her own human rights, and therefore necessarily in a society that protects these human rights, assesses for him- or herself what he or she can do to help society.

The etymology of ‘doing what you can’ is clearly recognizable in English. After all, ‘response-ability’ clearly points at a ‘capacity to respond’. In a human rights context, this relates to the capacity to respond to the human rights needs which one sees around oneself. These needs can be individual, such as those of your sick mother for whom you are caring, or structural, such as when you feel that you are called to action because society is heading in the wrong direction.

How this responsibility takes shape, is extremely diverse and has a lot to do with the exact circumstances in which you find yourself, and also with how you feel the other person, or society as a whole, is best served. For that reason, human responsibility cannot be defined in terms of clearly defined obligations – such an approach would even be counterproductive. Sometimes human responsibility takes on a very visible form, but, more often than not, it happens behind the scenes. Many people, for instance, work to provide a dignified old age for the elderly. Others are extra cautious in these COVID-19 times, and save a life without ever even knowing it themselves. Taking responsibility can take the form of everyday caring for each other, or risking your own life, even against your own government, in order to protect yourself and your fellow citizens. What you can do to protect human rights, in everyday practice, differs from person to person, precisely because everyone’s situation is different. It’s therefore also up to everyone to decide for themselves what they want, and are able, to do.

This diversity is precisely what we need. The drafters of the Universal Declaration were aware that, although human rights must, in the first place, be protected by the State, it is evident that real human rights protection requires the alertness and cooperation of everyone. This observation has only become more topical today. Therefore, the appeal that can be found in the Universal Declaration sounds louder today than ever before.

We need human rights, and human rights need us

This year we are celebrating human rights day at a time when human rights worldwide are under threat. Even in countries that used to proudly defend human rights treaties, we see leaders who openly question their usefulness. In ‘the West’, we can’t really imagine that we can still end up in situations like ‘before’ or ‘over there’, but that doesn’t alter the fact that human rights violations, both minor and major, still take place in our countries every day. Sometimes they make the news, but most often they do not.

That’s why we celebrate the Universal Declaration today, in the knowledge that now, perhaps more than ever in the last 72 years, it’s up to us to put them into practice. We can do this by looking around us, in our daily lives, and asking ourselves what we, in very small ways, can change, or by pointing out, to our own governments, where they are failing, or by standing up for people, at home and abroad, who can no longer do that for themselves. In this way,  we can celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in its full and challenging meaning.

Michaël Merrigan is an attorney at law at the Brussels Bar, and a junior affiliated researcher at the Leuven Centre for Public Law (KU Leuven). He is also vice-president of Amnesty International Belgium Flemish. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

This article was slightly adapted from the Dutch-language op-ed which was published on knack.be.

Image: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash


& Michaël MERRIGAN, "We Need Human Rights, and Human Rights Need Us - The Call for Individual Action in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights", Leuven Blog for Public Law, 10 December 2020, https://www.leuvenpubliclaw.com/we-need-human-rights-and-human-rights-need-us-the-call-for-individual-action-in-the-universal-declaration-of-human-rights (geraadpleegd op 1 August 2021)

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