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Rights vs Responsibilities: 2 Sides of the Human Rights Coin

The Problem

What would the right to education look like without schools and teachers? What would the right to vote look like without ballots and polling places? How are the rights guaranteed to citizens by constitutions and international treaties enjoyed in the real world?

The Answer

For every right held by individuals, there is a corresponding responsibility held by institutions, usually governments. In order for people to exercise their right to vote, the government is responsible for opening polling stations, hiring poll workers, printing ballots, and buying counting machines. Rights don’t mean much unless the responsibility is held up on the other end. 

Rights and Responsibilities

Rights are fundamental freedoms and legal entitlements to have something or act in a certain way. Human rights are the rights that people have just by being human. They are inalienable, indivisible, and interdependent, meaning they cannot be taken away, no one right is more important than another, and the enjoyment of each human right is connected to the enjoyment of all others. 

Responsibilities are duties to protect and promote human rights by creating the social, economic, and political conditions as well as legal guarantees necessary to ensure that all persons under a state’s jurisdiction are able to enjoy those rights and freedoms.

How It Works

In the Human Rights field, individuals and communities are known as “rights-holders” while the governments and institutions responsible for guaranteeing those rights are referred to as “duty-bearers”. These distinctions define the relationship between those who are in power and those who are not. In order for human rights to be fully realized, rights-holders must be made aware of their rights and given the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect them. There must also be a system of accountability whereby rights-holders are able to demand protection from duty-bearers and have legal recourse when violations occur. 

The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states 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.” This statement suggests an affirmation on the part of the nations of the world that it is their responsibility to protect the human rights of the people living within their jurisdiction. 

The responsibilities of duty-bearers have three levels: to respect, to protect, and to fulfil. Respect entails not interfering with enjoyment of a right. Protecting is about preventing others from interfering with the enjoyment of a right. Fulfilling rights involves taking active steps through laws and institutions that enable individuals to enjoy their rights. 

Systems of accountability look different in different places depending on national laws and systems of government, as well as the willingness and capacity to enforce what’s written. In democratic societies, constitutions often lay out the rights held by citizens of that country, and legal systems are in place to address violations and infringements. 

So What?

However, just because governments acknowledge their role as duty-bearers, does not mean that they meet their responsibilities. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and classism are baked into legal institutions around the world, so written rights rarely correspond to rights enjoyed in practice. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is often described as an “aspirational” document. This is due to the fact that many of the rights spelled out in the UDHR are not felt in people’s lives because duty-bearers have not met their obligations. 

Likewise, the idea of who qualifies as citizens, and is therefore protected by the law, has changed over time. Still today, marginalized populations around the world, particularly immigrants, refugees, and stateless peoples, are excluded from the protection of their human rights because of their legal status. 

Next time you see a human right being violated, ask yourself: who is responsible for protecting this right, and how are they failing to do so? Then, consider what actions must be taken in order for the duty-bearer to be held responsible and to protect the victims of the violation. Governments must be held accountable for their responsibilities because the full enjoyment of human rights will not be a reality until the rights of the most vulnerable groups are respected, protected, and fulfilled. 

Think Further

  1. Name a human right that you have seen violated recently, in your life or in the news. Who is responsible for protecting that right and why are they not doing so? 
  2. What are some ways that you can become more educated about your human rights?
  3. What are some steps you can take to hold duty-bearers accountable?

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  1. UN General Assembly. (1998). Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (resolution 53/144). Retrieved from: https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/rightandresponsibility.aspx 
  2. UN General Assembly. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights (217 [III] A). Paris. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights 
  3. United Nations Population Fund (2014). “The Human Rights Based Approach”. https://www.unfpa.org/human-rights-based-approach 
  4. Human Rights Watch (2021). “Human Rights Education”.  https://www.hrw.org/students-and-educators