Human Responsibilities Reinforce Human Rights: The Global Ethic Project

Article taken from
Reflections on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
A Fiftieth Anniversary Anthology
Published under the auspices of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague, 1998

By Hans Küng

Anyone who is interested in seeing human rights more fully respected and more effectively defended throughout the world must surely also be interested in achieving a change of consciousness concerning human obligations or responsibilities. These need to be seen in the context of global challenges and efforts to establish a global or world ethic, an ethic for humankind. By this I mean a minimum basic consensus as regards binding values, immutable standards and basic moral attitudes - a consensus which can be accepted by all religions as well as by non-believers.

Efforts to establish a global ethic (for which I laid the theoretical foundations in my book entitled Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic, published in German in 1990 and in English in 1991) have received widespread international backing in recent years. Two documents are of particular relevance:

  • On 4 September 1993, for the first time in the history of religion, delegates to the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago adopted a ''Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.''
  • On 1 September 1997, again for the first time, the InterAction Council of former presidents and prime ministers called for a global ethic and submitted to the United Nations a proposed ''Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities,'' designed to underpin, reinforce and supplement human rights from an ethical angle.

In the remainder of this essay, I would like to make some fundamental comments on the relationship between human rights and human responsibilities.

The Declaration by the InterAction Council is not an isolated document. It is a response to the urgent calls of influential international bodies for global ethical standards, to which an entire chapter is devoted in the 1995 reports of both the Commission on Global Governance and the World Commission on Culture and Development. The same issues have been on the agenda for some time at the World Economic Forum in Davos and also in the new UNESCO Universal Ethics Project. They are also receiving increasing attention in Asia.

Within these international, interdenominational bodies, the contemporary backdrop to these issues is that globalisation of the economy, technology, and the media has also meant globalisation of problems (from financial and labour markets to the environment and organised crime.) What is therefore also needed is globalisation of ethics: not a uniform ethical system, but a necessary minimum of shared ethical values, basic attitudes and standards to which all regions, nations and interest groups can subscribe ? in other words, a shared basic ethic for mankind. There can be no new world order without a world ethic!

The Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities supports and underpins the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from an ethical angle, as announced in the preamble: ''We ... renew and reinforce commitments already proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: namely, the full acceptance of the dignity of all people; their inalienable freedom and equality, and their solidarity with one another.'' If human rights are not being asserted everywhere that they could be, this is usually for want of the necessary political and ethical will. Even the most fervent of human rights activists must acknowledge that ''the rule of law and the promotion of human rights depend on the readiness of men and women to act justly.''

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that the legal validity of human rights should be dependent on the actual fulfilment of human responsibilities. The idea of human rights as a reward for good behaviour is absurd - for this would mean that only those who had shown themselves worthy of the community by fulfilling their responsibilities towards it would be entitled to enjoy such rights. This would clearly conflict with the notion of the unconditional dignity of the individual, which in turn is a pre-condition for both rights and responsibilities. No one is suggesting that certain human responsibilities must be fulfilled, by the individual or by a community, before any claim can be laid to human rights. The latter are part and parcel of the individual, who is always, however, the bearer of responsibilities as well as rights: ''All human rights are by definition directly bound up with the duty to respect them'' (V. Deile) While rights and responsibilities can be clearly distinguished, they cannot be separated. The relationship between them must be described in differentiated terms. They are not quantities to be superficially added or subtracted, but two interrelated dimensions of humanity in both the individual and the social sphere.

No rights without responsibilities. As such, this issue is by no means a new one - it goes back to the days when human rights were first ''invented.'' During the debate on human rights in France's revolutionary assembly in 1789, the following demand was already made: any declaration of human rights must be accompanied by a declaration of human responsibilities. If not, everyone would eventually have rights and play them off against one another, but no one would be aware of any longer of the responsibilities without which such rights cannot operate. Today, two centuries after the French Revolution, we essentially find ourselves living in a society in which individual groups all too often invoke rights against other people without acknowledging that they themselves have responsibilities of any kind. This must not be attributed to codified human rights as such, but to certain erroneous developments which have a great deal to do with them and which, in the minds of many people, have led to a predominance of rights over responsibilities. Instead of the hoped-for culture of human rights, what we frequently see is a perverse culture based on exaggerated claims, in which the original purpose of human rights is forgotten. Equilibrium between ''freedom, equality and participation'' does not simply ''happen'', but must be re-established again, and again. There can be no denying that we live in a society based on rights, which often also presents itself as a ''society based on legal rights'' or even a ''litigious society'' turns the state - the term has been applied to the Federal Republic of Germany - into a ''judicial state'' (in the words of the legal historian S.Simon.) Perhaps it is time, particularly in our society with its overemphasis on the law, that the legitimate insistence on rights should make room for a new focus on responsibilities.

The worldwide occurrence of serious human rights violations should make it especially clear to professional human rights activists, who seek to defend human rights ''unconditionally,'' how empty any declaration and formulation of human rights is bound to be in situations where people ? and above all rulers - ignore their human responsibilities (''It's got nothing to do with me!''), neglect them (''My job is to protect my company's interests!''), reject them (''That's for the churches and charities to deal with!'') or dishonestly claim to be fulfilling them (''We in the government / on the board of directors are doing everything we can!''). The ''weakness'' of human rights does not, in fact, lie in the concepts as such, but in the lack of political and moral will shown by the responsible players. In other words, effective assertion of human rights depends on an ethical impulse and normative motivation! This is fully understood by the many front-line human rights activists who have expressed their advocacy of a global ethic in a separate publication of their own. Anyone, who wishes to defend human rights effectively should therefore welcome a new moral impulse and ethical frame of reference rather than reject them (to the detriment of his or her own cause.)

In many respects, the ethical frame of reference of the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities goes beyond that of human rights, which only indicate what is right and wrong in certain specific areas. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not even make such a comprehensive moral claim. This is why any Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities must extend much further and aim much higher. The two basic principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities alone provide a comprehensive yet specific ethical framework for everyday practice, namely the basic requirement that every person be treated in a humane way and the Golden Rule ''What you do not wish to be done yourself, do not do to others,'' not to mention the specific requirements in the Declaration of Responsibilities concerning truthfulness, non-violence, fairness, solidarity, partnership, etc. Where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must leave open what is and is not morally permitted, the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities tells us - not as a law, but as a moral imperative.

Whereas the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is mostly phrased in ''anonymous'' terms, since it is aimed less at the individual (who needs protection) than at the state (whose power must be curtailed), the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, though also aimed at the state and at institutions, is aimed primarily and specifically at the people's responsible. Again and again it refers to ''all people'' or ''every person'', and appeals specifically to particular occupational groups which bear a special responsibility in our society (politicians, public servants, business leaders, writers, artists, physicians, lawyers, journalists, religious leaders, etc.) In this age of suit-yourself, take-it-or-leave-it pluralism, such a declaration of responsibilities undeniably throws down a challenge - at least to all those whose sole standard of ''morality'' is ''as long as it's fun'' or ''as long as it helps me fulfill myself.'' Yet the Declaration of Human Responsibilities is not a new ''community ideology'' - something the communitarians inspired by Amitai Etzioni are wrongly accused of promoting. Whereas they are certainly not out to establish a ''tyranny of consensus'' and to entirely relieve people of their individual responsibility. The latter can more properly be levelled at those who in this day and age, fatally misjudging the current crisis, persist in claiming that a ''belief in the value of selfishness'' or ''the virtues of non-orientation and non-attachment'' should be our guide in tomorrow's world.

Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities is thus a moral appeal, which of course is also intended to have a legal and political impact, but not to ''codify'' morality. The Universal Declaration of Responsibilities in not, as has been claimed, a ''blueprint for a legally binding canon of responsibilities with a claim to global validity.'' People should refrain from conjuring up such spectres at a time when even the Pope and the Curia are no longer able to impose their codified authoritarian moral views even in their own immediate sphere (let alone in the outside world); neither the declaration of the Parliament of the World's Religions nor that of the InterAction Council says anything about such controversial moral issues as contraception, abortion or euthanasia. The aim of the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities is thus emphatically not legal codification, which is simply not possible with regard to moral attitudes such as truthfulness or fairness. Its aim is voluntary self-obligation. In individual cases this can, of course, lead to legal regulation, but a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities does not in principle imply legal obligations. What it does imply is moral obligations.

My concluding wish for the ensuing debate is this: that there should be no false fronts, no artificially constructed antithesis between rights and duties, between the ethic of freedom and the ethic of responsibility. Rather, we should seize the opportunities which may lie in such a potentially historic declaration, should it ever be promulgated. For it is not every day that statesmen from every continent agree on such a text and advocate such a cause. Above all, we should not be afraid of a global ethic, which, if properly understood, can liberate us rather than enslave us - can help us to be, and to remain, truly human.