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HUMAN RIGHTS: A HUMAN DUTY

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NEW YORK, Dec 1 2003 (IPS) - Modern governments acknowledge that they have a responsibility to work actively to end international poverty, protect humanity from dangerous diseases, provide children with education, preserve the environment for our descendants, and ensure that everyone has access to reasonable housing and clean water, writes Mary Robinson, Executive Director of The Ethical Globalisation Initiative and former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Most recently, all 189 United Nations member states signed the UN Millennium Declaration in 2000, which formally commits them to take practical and co-operative action in these and other areas. Robinson writes that there has never been a greater need for simple and convincing arguments that explain, to governments and people alike, why action to end poverty, illiteracy, oppression and disease is right, is in the interests of everyone – richer and poorer – and requires combined and persistent effort from all parties. Political leaders, in their public capacity, and citizens in their private capacity, act to help others because they believe it is right to do so. Ethical commitment is an essential component of any strategy to make the world a safer and better place for all who live in it. Action to end poverty, illiteracy and oppression will not succeed in the absence of such values.

Modern governments acknowledge that they have a responsibility to work actively to end international poverty, protect humanity from dangerous diseases, provide children with education, preserve the environment for our descendants, and ensure that everyone has access to reasonable housing and clean water. Most recently, all 189 United Nations member states signed the UN Millennium Declaration in 2000, which formally commits them to take practical and co-operative action in these and other areas.

What do these responsibilities amount to in practice? When do wealthier societies have a duty to help much poorer ones? What limits can the governments of those societies reasonably impose on such obligations, and to what extent do they take priority over other duties, for example to their own citizens? Are such obligations of a merely ethical nature – matters of choice, or values – or do they include a more formal, even legal dimension?

There has never been a greater need for simple and convincing arguments that explain, to governments and people alike, why action to end poverty, illiteracy, oppression and disease is right, is in the interests of everyone – richer and poorer – and requires combined and persistent effort from all parties.

Political leaders, in their public capacity, and citizens in their private capacity, act to help others because they believe it is right to do so. Ethical commitment is an essential component of any strategy to make the world a safer and better place for all who live in it. Action to end poverty, illiteracy and oppression will not succeed in the absence of such values.

Yet states do not operate on the same terms as individuals. They are subject to national and international law, and governments are obliged to take proper account of national interests. Though the ethical beliefs of individual politicians often influence their decisions, most political leaders consider that their first duty is to their own citizens, then to societies with which they have close ties. Simply asserting that richer countries should show more political determination in acting internationally to end poverty and illiteracy will not serve unless political leaders and officials can demonstrate to one another and their publics that they have a duty to take international action, and that the action they take is lawful and responsible and respects other obligations that they have, notably to their own people.

Arguments for action that draw on human rights are more than moral appeals, because the values of human rights are embedded in a framework of international law that has been negotiated and agreed by states, and that takes account of the character of state obligations. The human rights framework reflects and promotes core moral values that most people in most societies can identify with, but at the same time it is legal in character.

This offers three benefits. First, the framework is precise: it sets out clearly who has obligations and duties and who has not, and what those obligations and duties are. Second, it is practical: it provides states with a formal language they can use to negotiate and co-operate with one another. Third, it can be binding: when governments ratify human rights agreements, they accept a formal duty to implement the commitments they have thereby made.

Reality, of course, is not so simple. Like other forms of human enterprise, human rights are not always as specific as might be wished. Governments may interpret their international commitments differently (or disregard them), and in many instances laws may not be enforced effectively. Nevertheless, albeit imperfectly, human rights legal standards add rigour and precision to moral argument; they have practical application; and they create conditions in which political clarity can be achieved.

A new report by the International Council on Human Rights Policy titled “Duties sans Frontieres: Human rights and global social justice” explores how human rights arguments can strengthen more familiar appeals to ethics and legitimate self-interest. It offers additional tools that citizens and officials can use – in richer countries certainly, but in poorer societies too – to generate the dynamic and effective action that will be required if we are to solve the numerous injustices and inequities that afflict our society, and pass on a more fitting world to future generations. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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