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A ‘Declaration of Human Responsibilities’?

By Keith Suter - posted Monday, 11 December 2023

December 10 is Human Rights Day. Great progress has been made in the international protection of human rights. Perhaps it is now time to go to the next step: create a parallel set of human responsibilities or duties.

In my involvement in the international protection of human rights over the last five decades, this now seems to be the largest single missing element in the human rights cause.

The Declaration of Human Rights on December 10 1948 was done in reaction to the gross violations of human rights, especially in World War II. During the war the Allies were not only fighting against the German, Italian and Japanese dictators but they were also fighting for a better post-war world.


In 1944-5, when the UN Charter was being finalized, there was a move to attach an "international bill of rights", similar to the Bill of Rights attached to the United States Constitution. There was not enough time to write the document and so it was agreed that an early task of the new international organization would be to create such a document.

In fact, the task was divided into two stages: a basic declaration which (like all UN General Assembly declarations) has no binding power upon any government (even if it voted for it on the day).

The second stage is to convert a declaration into a treaty which governments may or may not choose to sign and ratify, and which is then binding on those governments that have ratified it. The second stage came in 1966 with the two Human Rights Covenants. Most governments have now ratified the Covenants and they continue to grow via optional protocols such as the one aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – now one of the 20th century's most important international documents – ends with two responsibilities. Interestingly, while people are well aware in general terms of the rights listed, few people seem to know about the final two paragraphs of the document.

Article 29 acknowledges in effect that everyone has duties to the community. The implication is that a person may exercise his or her rights but not to detriment of others, for example, the freedom of press does not mean freedom to libel, while freedom of association does not entitle people to join together in bands to rob or murder.

Article 30 states that nothing in the declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights set forth in the declaration. In short, the document should not be used to endanger the freedom of others.


The Club of Rome is a Switzerland-based think tank (of which I have been a member since 1993) which first made its name with the best-selling 1972 environmental warning Limits to Growth.

The Club of Rome has continued to address global issues, including the possible creation of a declaration of responsibility.

"A Declaration of Human Responsibilities" was then presented to the 1991 Club of Rome annual conference. The seven page document was in draft form and not in the style of a United Nations declaration (a list of specific paragraphs). It was really more of an argument in favour of creating such a declaration rather than a detailed listing of what should be in it. It called on the United Nations to study this argument further. It was circulated to UN bodies but nothing came of it at the time.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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