In the 21st Century is there a case for a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, and if so what should these be?

Alfie – Year 9 Student

Editor’s Note: This excellent essay was a ‘highly commended’ entry into the GSAL Year 7-9 Essay Competition organised by Mr Yates as part of the 2008 Society and open to all students. Alfie has previously had a review of the book ‘I Am Malala’ published in The GSAL Journal. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. Arguably, with rights should come responsibilities. In the 21st Century is there a case for a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, and if so what should these be? CPD

I would say that responsibilities most certainly come with rights and feel that, particularly in the 21st Century, there is more of a case than ever for a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities. Within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) the first sub-article in article 29 (out of 30) there is a suggestion that humans have a responsibility for the welfare of others. It states that “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible”. However, I believe that this one sub-article within a detailed declaration is nowhere near enough and I hope to persuade you, in this essay, that there is a very strong case for an entire Declaration focused solely on Human Responsibility, rather than just Human Rights.

So what is the relationship between rights and responsibilities? Well, rights are what we (as the human race) receive in order to promote our own security and equality. However responsibilities are what we must give to promote the security and equality of others. The most important thing to understand is that individuals cannot receive security and equality unless they are given this by others (e.g. governments and law courts.). Furthermore, for a fully working society where everyone gets their human rights (security and equality) everyone should invest in society (e.g. be volunteering to keep the homeless people off the public  streets and be involved in the upkeep of public buildings). However when nobody works to keep their communities (on a small social scale) working, the whole of society will collapse.

The problem I am referring to is known in economics as ‘the free rider problem’. This problem can arise in communities of any shape or size. For example a town or city council may need to investigate whether and how to contribute to filling in pot holes in roads and sinking public paths without using its public funding (from government tax) due to community health service requirements. The public may then be responsible for keeping roads and paths in good condition to protect themselves from injury and protect valuable cars and expect no cash in return for their good deeds for complete strangers. Economists are immediately drawn to ‘market failure’ (i.e. unsuccessful trading of goods), that will affect large companies and brands, by the free rider problem. Actually though, this problem relates directly to everyone’s reliance on the upkeep of society, by a proportionally small number of people. We must be reminded that if these generous people don’t do the work they do and give more rather than take more (responsibility rather than rights) then the free rider problem becomes commonplace and this would mean society would hover right on the edge of complete collapse. We rely and believe it to be the responsibility of others to keep our society (a large community basically) in a stable position but why shouldn’t it also be other peoples responsibility to look after their society? These are the basic morals of helping your neighbour and this key piece of advice, to help one another, appears in many pieces of religious scripture right around the world.

I believe that we need a Declaration of Human Responsibility in today’s climate because society and civilisation is dramatically declining, with “societal collapse a more treacherous prospect” than ever, as suggested by a BBC article on the collapse of civilisation as a whole. In the past changing climates, that humans have not been equipped to deal with, have caused droughts and starvation on a large scale, destroying entire groups of people (e.g. Mayans). Furthermore violence has brutally destroyed many societies (e.g. Roman society). With almost irreversible climate change on the near horizon and increasing tension in the in the Middle Eastern world, where nuclear weapons are in the balance, modern society (and civilisations as a whole) is in a treacherous state. Furthermore child poverty, terrorism, stabbings and homelessness is on the rise all around us. Many of us close our eyes to the drastic issues in our local communities, towns, cities, counties and most importantly the world. It is at least our responsibility to try to save the least fortunate in the world who will suffer from war and starvation before ourselves. We should be worried about what happens in these third world countries because it is a sign of what is to come for the Western World.

You may now be questioning why you should ‘give a dam’ and why A Declaration of Human Responsibility would benefit you? Well for a start the next generation is going to be witness to more extreme weather events than ever before. For example the bush fires in Australia that have been ferociously raging have ruined many citizens’ lives – must I point out that Australia is a first World country. Furthermore, with an expected population of 9 billion by 2050 the distribution of non-renewable resources and carbon budget to contend with it could quite possibly mean people will have to withstand an unforeseen need for non-existent resources. In addition drought from warmer weather will mean many food stuffs we eat and enjoy on regular basis will be almost impossible to get hold of. In addition evidence gained by the National Geographic suggest “Average sea levels have swelled over 8 inches (about 23 cm) since 1880, with about three of those inches gained in the last 25 years. Every year, the sea rises another 13 inches (3.2 mm).” Many cities in the world are close to sea level and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that in an increasingly populated world will have to move in-land and to already highly populated places. Many neighbourhoods, large and small, will eventually become increasingly busy, and if you have a basic understanding of biology you will know the chances of the spread of nasty viruses, like the Coronavirus (that began in the densely populated nation of China), will increase.

This new Declaration may mean people are required to use public transport and only allow one car per household and for one couple to have no more than 2 children if possible. Being made to do these things will help with population problems and climate change. In addition it could quite easily be governments’ responsibility to invest in better public transport and other vital things like this. At some point everyone must be partly responsible for looking after the planet everyone lives on and a Declaration of Human Responsibility would help to look after and create a sustainable future for the next generation. Making people save the world and themselves will be tricky but we must at least try, like we do with Human Rights. “We need to act now” to save the planet because “the house is on fire”, as climate activist Great Thunberg has put it.

Enforceability of this Declaration will be challenging but no more so than the current Human Rights. If we can’t save the planet from war and climate change we must at least try to prevent the collapse of global society and civilisation – Don’t you want a safe and happy life for you, your children and your children’s children?



Article 29, Sub-article 1 of Universal Declaration of Human rights:

‘Free rider’ problem:

Declining of society and civilisation:

Why we should we ‘give a dam’ about climate change:

Rising sea levels:


Greta Thunberg, “we need to act now”:

Greta Thunberg, “Our house in on fire”:

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