Some Contributions to a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations

April 1997
By Oscar Arias Sánchez

It is time to talk about human obligations

The initiative to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations is timely. Although traditionally we have spoken of human rights, and indeed the world has gone a long way in their international recognition and protection since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, it is time now to initiate an equally important quest for the acceptance of human duties or obligations.

This new vision of human obligations is necessary for several reasons. Of course, this idea is new only to some regions of the world; many societies have traditionally conceived of human relations in terms of obligations rather than rights. This is true, in general terms, for instance, for much of Eastern thought. While traditionally in the West the concepts of freedom and individuality have been emphasized, in the East the notions of responsibility and community have prevailed. The fact that a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted instead of a Universal Declaration of Human Duties undoubtedly reflects the philosophical and cultural background of the document’s drafters who, as is known, represented the Western powers who emerged victorious from the Second World War. 

Although human rights are recognized throughout most of the world as the minimum conditions for a decent standard of living, the concept of rights that pertain to humans solely by being humans is not always wholly compatible with other culture’s traditional values. This is particularly true for those societies where the notion of social acceptance -and the granting of rights- depends on the performance of or compliance with certain social duties. Therefore, a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations, focusing on the active aspect of human relations, will balance rights with duties -which together constitute the basic fabric of all social relations- thus making the idea of human rights more accessible to those for whom it may otherwise be alien. 

The concept of human obligations also serves to balance the notions of freedom and responsibility: while rights relate more to freedom, obligations are assocciated with responsibility. Despite this distinction, freedom and responsibility are interdependent. Responsibility, as a moral quality, serves as a natural, voluntary check for freedom. In any society, freedom can never be exercised without limits. Thus, the more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves. The more talents we possess, the bigger the responsibility we have to develop them to their fullest capacity. 

The opposite is also true: as we develop our sense of responsibility, we increase our internal freedom by fortifying our moral character. When freedom presents us different possibilities for action, including the choice to do right or wrong, a responsible moral character will ensure that the former will prevail. 

Sadly, this relationship between freedom and responsibility has not always been clearly understood. Some ideologies have placed greater importance on the concept of individual freedom, while others on the unquestioning commitment to the social group. 

Without a proper balance, unrestricted freedom is as dangerous as imposed social responsibility. Great social injustices have resulted from extreme economic freedom and capitalist greed, while at the same time cruel oppression of people’s basic liberties has been justified in the name of communist ideals and society’s interests. 

Either extreme is undesirable. At present, with the disappearance of the East-West conflict and the end of the Cold War, with the failure of Marxist experiments and the gradual humanization of capitalism, humanity seems closer to the desired balance between freedom and responsibility. We have struggled for freedom and rights. It is now time to foster responsibility and human obligations.

The initiative to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations is not only a way of balancing freedom with responsibility, but also a means of reconciling ideologies and political views that were deemed antagonistic in the past. The basic premise, then, should be that humans deserve the greatest possible amount of freedom, but also should develop their sense of responsibility to its fullest in order to correctly administer their freedom.

From Rights to Obligations

Because rights and duties are inextricably linked, the idea of a human right only makes sense if we acknowledge the duty of others to respect it. Regardless of a particular society’s values, human relations are universally based on the existence of both rights and duties.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes a detailed set of conditions which, if present, are believed to be conducive to a good life. Among these are freedom, equality, economic and social security and peace, aspirations which portray the main challenges that lie ahead of humanity. 

Nevertheless, of the Universal Declaration’s 30 articles only one -Article 29- refers to human duties. The only other reference to obligations is a brief section of Article 1 which states that all human beings… are endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards another in a spirit of brotherhood. This spirit of brotherhood, or solidarity, is precisely what the world needs more of today. Solidarity with our fellow humans, solidarity between nations, and solidarity towards our planet Earth. 

The importance of the concept of responsibility should not be overlooked. After all, it is a sense of responsibility that makes people accountable for their actions. Indeed, we are all responsible for the problems humanity faces today: destruction of the environment, extreme poverty and the persistence of armed conflict around the globe. These threats are nothing else than the result of human action, action driven, in most cases, by greed, selfishness or just plain ignorance. Whatever the reasons, humanity clearly can no longer afford to endure such tragedies. 

Towards a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations

Challenges such as environmental breakdown, global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer, deforestation, pollution, overpopulation or nuclear war affect all people without regard to nation, race, religion, sex or status. Thus, each and every one of us has a direct interest in solving these problems. Most of all, since these problems were created by our direct or indirect actions, we are responsible for their solution.

Considering the previous reflections, there are at least three strong arguments for developing a code of human obligations:

  • the problems humanity faces are entirely the result of human action;
  • all of humanity has a direct interest in those problems being solved;
  • since rights and duties are inextricably linked, human rights should also entail human duties.

Moreover, traditionally human rights are conceived in terms of obligations of states vis-a-vis individuals. Solidarity demands that we also think of obligations between individuals. I propose, then, that a code of human obligations consider at least four dimensions of human action:

  • obligations between persons;
  • obligations between nations;
  • obligations toward planet Earth;
  • obligations toward ourselves.

Obligations between persons

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has expressed in simple but effective terms the principle that should guide human relations. He says that if we aim to be happy, we should acknowledge that others also desire to achieve happiness. If we believe we should have a right to be happy, others should also have the same right. If we wish that others help us achieve happiness, we must be committed to helping others achieve their own happiness.

There is no need for a complex set of rules to guide human action. There is one ancient rule that, if truly followed, would ensure just human relations: the Golden Rule. In its negative form, the Golden Rule mandates that we not do to others what we do not wish be done to us. The positive form implies a more active and solidary role: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

Bearing in mind the Golden Rule, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the ideal starting point from which to consider some of the main obligations between persons.

  • If we have a right to life, then we have the obligation to respect life. Beyond the mere fact of existence, every human being should be entitled to a happy and healthy life; thus, we are committed to creating the conditions for others to enjoy such an existence.
  • If we have a right to liberty, we have the obligation to respect other people’s liberty as long as it does not cause harm to ourselves or to others.
  • If we have a right to security -not just mere security from aggression, but human security in its broadest sense: security from hunger, from disease, from ignorance- then we have the obligation not to hinder other people’s same right. We have the obligation to help create the conditions for every human being to enjoy true human security.
  • If we have a right to partake in our country’s political process and elect our leaders, we have the obligation to participate and ensure that the best leaders are chosen. In particular, political leaders who run for office and ask their fellow citizens for their support acquire special responsibilities toward those constituents. We have the right to be governed by honest and capable leaders who are committed to the well-being of their people and their country. It is also our obligation to demand that committment from them. When a government is mismanaged, political leaders may be held responsible, but the citizens who could have prevented the situation but did not should be held responsible as well.
  • If we have a right to work under just and favorable conditions to provide a decent standard of living for ourselves and our families, we also have the obligation to perform to the best of our capacities. Public employees in particular have the obligation to provide the best possible service.
  • If we have a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, we also have the obligation to respect other’s thoughts or religious principles. No single person or religion possesses the absolute truth, and each provides valuable contributions in humanity’s quest to give meaning to life. Under no circumstances should religion be used as an excuse for violence or hate. 
  • If we have a right to be educated, we have the obligation to learn as much as our capabilities allow us and, where possible, share our knowledge and experience with others.

Obligations between nations

At the end of the 20th century, humanity faces challenges never before experienced. Yet, we also possess greater capacities to face them. While wars have been a constant in human history, the production, stockpiling and proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction pose an immediate risk to the entire planet. 

Furthermore, while the world’s economy has expanded fivefold in the last four decades, extreme poverty grips one-fifth of humanity. Rapid population growth, more than 90% of it occurring in the Third World, swells the ranks of the destitute while critically impacting the environment.

Fortunately, the end of the Cold War has brought new opportunities for democratization, economic transformation and peace. Globalization of both economies and challenges forces nations to assume collective responsibility for making this a better world. 

While all nations share responsibility for safely managing the planet and improving living conditions for its population, wealthier countries bear a greater burden. Official development assistance from the industrialized nations to the Third World is a necessary condition in order to help the poorer countries advance their economies. Developed nations must strive to meet the internationally-agreed official development assistance target of 0.7% of the GNP. 

Despite the need for assistance from the North, developing nations bear the main responsibility for their own economic and social progress. While 2 billion people lack safe sanitation, 1.5 billion do not have access to potable water, and 1 billion are illiterate, developing countries spend billions of dollars each year on arms purchases and military expenses, depriving already poor people of basic needs and services. In most cases, these countries do not face real threats to their external security. Instead, many regimes take advantage of the arms trade to abuse their own people.

Efforts to reduce unnecessary military and arms spending would liberate enormous amounts of resources that can, and should, be invested in human development and environmental conservation. Four percent of the $150 billion spent annually by the developing world on their military budget would help pay for programs that would increase literacy by fifty percent, provide universal primary education, and educate women to the same level as men. Eight percent of this budget could provide basic family planning packages to all willing couples and help stabilize world population by the year 2015. And the additional cost to provide universal primary health care -including immunization for all children, elimination of severe malnutrition, and provision of safe drinking water for all- would represent only twelve percent of this same budget.

Although there is a trend toward decreased global military spending since the end of the Cold War, there is also a clear arms surplus, which means that more weapons can be purchased at a lower cost. Light weapons, in particular, can easily be obtained through black markets and then smuggled to other countries, eventually finding their way to terrorists, organized crime rings and drugdealers or common criminals.

These facts indicate states share some basic obligations:

  • To resolve international disputes peacefully, by using the methods indicated in the UN Charter or resorting to the International Court of Justice. War should never be a legitimate means of solving disputes among nations.
  • To reduce military spending, including arms purchases and the size and budget of national armies, to its lowest possible level. We have already seen a reduction in global military expenditure from $995 billion in 1987 to $767 in 1994. An international agreement for each country to reduce its spending by 3% per year would bring global expenditures down to $500 billion by the end of this century. 
  • To ensure transparency in arms transfers by participating in the UN Register of Conventional Arms. The Register is an instrument that contributes to the growth of trust between member states and can also serve to denounce unusual concentrations of weapons in certain countries or regions.
  • To develop multilateral agreements to control the arms trade. For maximum effectiveness, an International Code of Conduct on the Arms Trade, approved by the United Nations and adopted by all arms-exporting nations, must be developed. According to the Code, the recipient country must endorse democracy, in terms of free and fair elections, the rule of law, and civilian control over the military and security forces. Its government should not engage in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, or be engaged in armed aggression in violation of international law. The Code would require the purchasing country to participate fully in the UN Register of Conventional Arms.
  • To end the production of nuclear, chemical, biological and other weapons of mass destruction and progressively eliminate those already in existence.

Obligations toward Earth 

In the Western cultural tradition, people were taught to see the Earth as a dead resource separate from its living beings, and at the service of mankind, just as the rest of creation. Today, we are coming to understand that the Earth, together with all its life forms, behaves like one living organism, with humanity as just one of its components. For several million years, the Earth has maintained a temperature suitable for life even though the sun has been getting hotter and the surface properties and the atmosphere’s conditions have varied. The balance of nitrogen and oxygen in the air we breath is constantly regulated by various life forms working together. Rather than adapting to the atmospheric conditions, it seems Earth’s life creates those conditions to sustain itself. 

Sadly, the natural balance of the Earth’s processes is being altered rapidly by human action. Between 17 and 20 million hectares of tropical forests are destroyed each year, also resulting in the loss of countless species, some unknown to mankind. In the Antarctic, during the spring of 1994, the hole in the ozone layer measured 10 million square kilometers. Growing quantities of chemicals, some extremely toxic, are dumped into the soil, air and water, altering nature’s biological systems. The emission of CO2 and other gases is resulting in a gradual warming of the Earth, a phenomenon scientists are now taking seriously, as global warming could raise the temperature by 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in an increase in the sea level of between 25 to 140 centimeters. 

As population levels increase, so will environmental hazards. In particular, world population is expected to double by the middle of the next century, and about 90% of the increase will happen in developing nations. While industrialized nations may not experience the immediate effects of global population growth, they are never inmune to the long-term consequences because of migrations and related environmental concerns. 

In their struggle for survival, the poor are forced to consume whatever resources they have within their reach: they will cut down tropical forests, overcultivate farm land, and deplete their natural resources. When people are starving, they think only of their own survival and are forced to disregard environmental considerations.

Underdevelopment is not the only cause of environmental degradation. The overconsumption and waste of resources on the part of the industrialized nations is also a great problem. As is well known, the consumption rate of non-renewable resources and energy in industrialized nations is greatly disproportionate to that of the developing world.

Therefore, the minimum human obligations toward Earth should include:

  • Protecting the remaining natural forests and initiating reforestation plans.
  • Ensure that biological diversity is protected
  • Shifting the consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels to other, cleaner sources of energy.
  • Stopping the production of gases responsible for the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer.
  • Ensuring that sustainable development principles are incorporated in every country’s economical and social policies. 

Obligations toward ourselves

We must accept that today’s problems were created by our thoughts and actions; peace, human development and environmental sustainability must begin in our own minds and deeds. The world cannot change without a transformation in human consciousness, and that transformation can only happen if we each assume certain obligations to ourselves:

  • If we want to be at peace with our fellow humans, and if we seek peace among nations, then we must start by developing inner peace. Honesty, solidarity, generosity, fairness and compassion are human characteristics that can foster inner peace. We must begin by being honest with ourselves, acknowledging our faults, but also learning to forgive ourselves for our mistakes.     
  • If we want to enjoy emotional security, we must remember that people should be valued based on who they are, not what they have. By resting our sense of emotional security in material possessions, we condemn ourselves to insecurity because material possessions can always be lost, destroyed or taken away. Instead, real emotional security depends on our ability to give and receive love, a psychological disposition that will foster human relations based on compassion, generosity and solidarity. 
  • As humans we have an unlimited potential for self-fulfillment. Thus, we have the obligation to develop our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual capacities to their fullest. This is an obligation we have to ourselves and to our Creator. By striving to do our best, we are certainly contributing to making this a better world for all.