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Letters to the Editor
Last Updated: 10/03/2011
Human Rights; Human Duties
Hans Maier

This email is a comment on the article by Dipo D. Summa “Are Human Rights Universal?” of September 12, 2011 in your Monitor. The author states a convincing case on the modern concept of human rights, rights that are granted to every human individual by the 1948 Universal Declaration. This grant “is given simply because the beneficiary is a human being. This conception of automatic entitlement is what sets it apart” writes the author. That recognition was the great achievement of mankind after World War II, and it is no wonder that the rights of humans were the central theme in those years, rights that had been so grievously violated during the war. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 states that “All human beings are ……endowed with reason and conscience….”, so it is clear that the possession of these faculties justified the conferment of rights on them and established their dignity.

As a matter of simple logic, the question could be raised: Reason and conscience can be employed in different ways; which ones merit the conferment of human rights? This question was not raised at the time, but in an oblique way the matter was discussed in terms of moral underpinnings for human rights. (See John.H.Knox, Opinio Juris, November 6, 2007). In the end, it was agreed to drop that subject in order not to hold up the project by endless discussions on ‘metaphysical controversies’. So the Declaration that eventually saw the light mentioned Rights prominently and duties only cursorily. But it may be clear that this left a piece of unfinished business, and the time now – early twentyfirst century -- seems ripe to complete the job. That job involves: developing the universal basic moral rules for the world’s seven billion inhabitants to underpin the universal rights granted to each one of them.

Awareness of that absence of duties is widespread, and is reflected in the considerable number of websites found on the internet that promote a declaration of duties as a complement of the declaration of rights. Invariably these duties are conceived of as duties owed to the community, but this is the entity that grants the rights, so this way of reasoning results in a tangle. The duties that are the reverse side of the coin bearing a person’s rights are in a different class, namely duties owed to that person’s own conscience. This approach is elaborated in www.humanduties.com, which aims to establish a short list of basic principles that can be endorsed by every human being on the face of planet Earth.

Mr.Summa is right in recognizing human rights as a universal value. The development of universal human duties will certainly strengthen his views.

Hans Maier
The Hague

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