Human Obligations

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The Scope of Human Obligations

To Individuals

To Marriage and Children

To Provide Work and Social Security

To Provide Education

To Provide Legal Process

To Culture and Leisure 

To International Movement

To Non-Discrimination

To World Order

Deriving Obligations

Comparable Documents

Reconciliation of Belief Systems








The moral codes that emerge in this selection of humanistic texts culminate in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. In the United Nations Charter, the peoples of the United Nations affirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women. They pledged themselves to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms. Because a common understanding of these rights and freedoms was of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge, the General Assembly proclaimed in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. It urged that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, should strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.


It is not possible to promote respect for these rights and freedoms while ignoring that acceptance of them also implies acceptance of obligations or duties ensuring the viability of these rights and freedoms. The fact that citizens have duties that relate to the community and their own personal development is noted in passing in the next to last article of the Declaration. But the duties entailed by rights are not explicitly addressed.


The duties entailed by rights have been a matter of concern since the formulation of statements of rights began. When Tom Paine helped draw up the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in the Eighteenth Century, he was asked in the National Assembly whether a declaration of the duties attendant on rights should also be drawn up. He replied that a declaration of rights is, by reciprocity, also a declaration of duties: "Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess."  The Nineteenth Century English legal philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Austin saw rights as defined by duties. Austin wrote that every right rested on a related duty imposed on one or more persons other than those enjoying the right. 


The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man signed by the 21 countries who formed the Organization of American States in Bogota in 1948 stated in its Preamble that


All men are born free and equal, in dignity and in rights, and, being endowed by nature with reason and conscience, they should conduct themselves as brothers one to another.


The fulfillment of duty by each individual is a prerequisite to the rights of all. Rights and duties are interrelated in every social and political activity of man. While rights exalt individual liberty, duties express the dignity of that liberty.


Duties of a juridical nature presuppose others of a moral nature which support them in principle and constitute their basis. . . .


The Bogota Declaration then enumerated individual duties and also duties with respect to social security and welfare.


In the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Guy Perez Cisneros, the delegate from Cuba, argued that the Declaration should likewise state explicitly the responsibilities that went along with many of the rights. In this he was joined by Alexei Pavlov of the Soviet Union, who argued that the Declaration was not intended to be a statement of selfish gains by individuals. To meet this concern, the Declaration contains a general statement of duties that covers the entire document. In addition, Lakshmi Menon, of India, drew attention to Mahatma Gandhi’s contention that all rights emerge from obligations. She argued, like Paine, that the Declaration of Rights was in fact a declaration of obligations.


Other civilizations have long had a concept of duties inherent in rights. In India, Mahatma Gandhi, reviewing the proposal for the UN Declaration, remarked that rights depend on attitudes and habits related to a sense of obligation rather than a sense of entitlement:

 "I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. From this one fundamental statement, perhaps, it is easy enough to define the duties of Man and Woman and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed. Every other right can be shown to be a usurpation hardly worth fighting for." 

Similarly, another reviewer, the Confucian philosopher Chung-Shu Lo commented that "the basic ethical concept of Chinese social political relations is the fulfillment of the duty to one's neighbor, rather than the claiming of rights." 


To enable recognition of the duties inherent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the following list of obligations has been extracted from it. The transformation from rights to obligations is largely an exercise in editing. And since the resulting declaration is founded on universally accepted rights and freedoms, it presumably offers a universally acceptable set of guidelines to actions, which can be aspired to if not immediately met. It is in fact a set of commandments that people choose for themselves when they agree to rights for all. 



The Scope of Human Obligations


1   All human beings are born with reason and a conscience. As members of their community, in which alone the free and full development of a person’s personality is possible, every individual, and every organ of society, has the following obligations.

2 These obligations are without exemptions due to race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. 

3 These obligations are without exemptions due to political, jurisdictional or international status of a country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it is independent, a trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.  


    To Individuals


4  Act towards other people as brothers and sisters, born free and equal, in dignity and obligations.


5   Respect and protect the life, liberty and personal security of all people. 


6  Prevent anyone from being arbitrarily arrested, detained or exiled.


7  Allow all people freedom of opinion and expression without interference. Let them seek, receive and express thoughts and opinions in any way they wish, without regard for frontiers. 


8   Allow all people freedom of movement and place of residence within your country. 


9  Allow all people to assemble peacefully and form associations, without compulsion.


10  Allow all people freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Enable them to freely choose their religion or belief, or to freely change it. 


11  Let all people express their choice of religion or belief in public and in private, alone or with others, in teaching, practice, worship or observance. 


12   Base the authority of government on the will of the people, through periodic free elections by secret vote, with equal and universal suffrage.


13  Take part in the government of your country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.


14  See that everyone has the right to own property, alone or with others. Let it not be taken from them unlawfully.


15  Do not arbitrarily interfere with another person’s privacy, family, home, or correspondence. Your laws must protect people against such interference.


16  Do not attack a person's honor and reputation. See that the law protects people against such attacks.


17 Free people held in slavery or servitude. Prohibit all forms of slavery and the slave trade.


18 Prevent people from being tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.



    To Marriage and Children


19  With your neighbors and government, protect each family. It is the foundation of society.


20 With the free and full consent of each, let a man and a woman of full age marry and found a family, with no limitation regarding race, nationality, or religion.


21 Recognize that men and women have equal rights going into marriage, during marriage, and at the end of marriage.


22 Give special care and assistance to  mothers and children. Give all children, born in or out of wedlock, the same social protection.



    To Provide Legal Process


23   Recognize anyone, from anywhere, as a person before the law.


24  Treat everyone equally before the law and protect them equally under the law. 


25  In determining a person's rights and obligations or need to respond to a criminal charge, give them, in full equality, a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.


26 Assume that anyone charged with a crime is innocent until proved guilty. Make sure such proof is according to law in a public trial at which the accused has had all the guarantees necessary for a defense.


27  Find no one guilty of any crime because of an act or omission that did not constitute a crime under national or international law at the time it was committed. Do not impose a heavier penalty than the one applicable at the time the crime was committed.  



    To Provide Work and Social Security


28  Carry out, through national effort and international co-operation, the economic, social and cultural obligations indispensable for the dignity and the free development of each person's personality, in accordance with the organization and resources of your State.


29  Make sure everyone can work, can choose their employment, and have just and favorable working conditions.


30 Give everyone equal access to public service in your country.


31 Provide a just and favorable remuneration to people who work, so that they and their families can live out their lives with dignity.


32  Provide everyone with equal pay for equal work, without discrimination.


33 Let anyone form or join a trade union for protection of their own interests.


34 Provide people with security in old age, or when struck by unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, or other threats to livelihood beyond their control.


35 See individuals and families have a standard of living adequate for health and well being, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and social services.



    To Provide Education


36 Provide everyone with a free education, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Make elementary education compulsory. Make technical and professional education generally available. Give equal access to higher education to all on the basis of merit.


37 Make sure education provides full development of the human personality. It must strengthen respect for human obligations, rights, and freedoms. It must promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all beliefs, religions, races and nations.  It must  further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.


38 Allow parents to choose the kind of education given to their children.



    To Culture and Leisure


39 To allow everyone rest and leisure, put a reasonable limit on working hours, and give holidays with pay.


40 Make sure everyone can take part in the cultural life of the community, enjoy the arts, and share in scientific advances and their benefits.


41  Protect the moral and material interests in a scientific, literary or artistic work for its creator.



    To International Movement


42 Allow people to leave your country and to return to it, or to their own.


43 Give a fair hearing to those seeking asylum from persecution. But do not let them enjoy asylum when they have committed non-political crimes or acts contrary to United Nations’ purposes and principles.


44 Ensure that everyone in your country has their nationality recognized, is not arbitrarily deprived of it,  and can change it if they want to.



    To Non-Discrimination


45  Protect everyone against  incitement to discrimination and against discrimination that violates this Declaration.


46  Ensure that competent national tribunals remedy acts violating obligations, rights and freedoms granted anyone by a constitution or by law.


47  Make sure that exercise of universal obligations is limited by law solely to secure due recognition and respect for the rights, freedoms, and obligations of others and to meet the just requirements of morality, public order and general welfare in a democratic society.



    To World Order


48  Strive for a social and international order that realizes the obligations, rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


49  Ensure that the universal obligations are not exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.


50  Do not interpret anything in this declaration as giving you, your group, or your State the right to act in any way to seek destruction of any of the obligations, rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 



Deriving Obligations


To develop a declaration of obligations, each  statement in the Declaration of Rights was first transformed with minimum change into a statement of obligation. This transformed declaration had the same structure and format as the original. Although it is not a legally binding document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is written in legal form by lawyers and is primarily a guide for legal determinations rather than a straight forward guide for people in general. The same type of document is obtained when a direct transformation into obligations is made. Therefore to provide a statement of obligations that is more readily grasped, this direct transformation was rewritten into a more conversational form and reorganized into clearer groupings. .


For example, Article 16 (3) in the declaration of rights is

The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.


In straight transformation it became:

The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society. Everyone has an obligation to ensure that the family is protected by society and the State.


With further editing, it became:

With your neighbors and government, protect each family. It is the foundation of society.


Changes included condensation or elaboration, avoidance of abstractions, use of more familiar words, reference to both sexes rather than ‘man’, and replacing the word ‘rights’ with ‘obligations’. Sometimes individual articles were split up or combined. The sequence was altered to allow individual obligations to come first, and to put dependent obligations after the other obligations that they depend on (for example, freedom of movement is necessary to exercise a vote, and so it has precedence in the sequence). An interlineated comparison of the original rights document with the rewrite can be viewed by clicking here.

The resulting declaration of obligations is based on recognition of the inherent dignity and equal rights and obligations of all people, of the equal obligations of men and women, of the importance of the rule of law, and of a universal desire to promote social progress and better standards of life. It is a necessary companion statement to the declaration of rights, because only dual recognition of both rights and obligations can form the basis for social behavior.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts forward the concept that the free and full development of a person's personality is a primary goal, and that this can only take place when one fulfills one's duties to community (Article 29). This view is shared by this declaration of obligations. Similarly, stable families are recognized as basic to a stable society, and so the family is singled out for protection. Like the Declaration of Rights this declaration of obligations is presented as a common standard that is both personal and shared by various groups in society.

Like the Declaration of Rights, the declaration of obligations is clearly very general, as it tries to cover all of the different activities that impact a person's life. Like the Declaration of Rights, it is missing topics on which agreement could not be reached. However, while one might see this as a defect, it is actually illustrative of the value of identifying areas of disagreement while enlarging the area of common understanding. This declaration of obligations represents a core set of values shared by many people in the world, if not by their governments. It suggests the minimum moral requirements for a philosophy, religion, or other belief system if we are to obtain a world at peace.


Comparable Documents

This declaration of obligations parallels to some extent the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. The chief difference is that the Vienna Declaration is directed to Governments and details the obligations, resources, machinery, and agencies that are to be supported if human rights are to be secured and enjoyed throughout the world.

In contrast, the declaration of obligations is derived directly from agreed-on human rights and formulated as a moral code that might be agreed on by different belief systems. As such, it can be compared with a more recent document with the same goal, A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, proposed by the InterAction Council in 1997, and signed by 27 former heads of state . This document also recognizes that rights and obligations demand to be given equal importance, and does so by developing a global ethic. The result is a document that makes greater use of general ethical terms such as "good", "evil", "humane", "inhumane", "integrity", "honesty", "fairness", "responsibly", "truthfully", "love", "loyalty", and "forgiveness". In this it reflects its strong reliance on a World Ethic proposed by Dr. Hans Kung, a Catholic theologian, and is indeed an important contribution to global ethics. The Declaration of Human Responsibilities, like the Vienna Declaration, also reflects some of the world concerns that have gained greater attention since 1948, namely, terrorism, abuse of women and children in war, and the need to protect the environment for future generations.

The use of ethical terms in the Declaration of Responsibilities is distinct from the use of behavioral terms in the declaration of obligations. Ethical terms leave greater scope for interpretation because of differences in the ethical component of different belief systems. Thus the Declaration of Responsibilities states

Article 17 In all its cultural and religious varieties, marriage requires love, loyalty and forgiveness and should aim at guaranteeing security and mutual support.

Whereas the declaration of obligations states

Article 20 With the free and full consent of each, let a man and a woman of full age marry and found a family, with no limitation regarding race, nationality, or religion.

Article 21 Recognize that men and women have equal rights going into marriage, during marriage, and at the end of marriage.

A comparison like this shows that the two documents have different functions. Terms relating to subjective feelings such as love, which may vary between cultures, are used in the Declaration of Responsiblities. On the other hand the declaration of obligations defines the conditions within which such feelings can be freely exercised. The latter declaration also has the advantage of being derived from a founding document agreed to by governments, but it would benefit from addenda that would describe how its articles respond to new challenges, such as those addressed by the former heads of state. For example, an obligation to prevent terrorism and to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change is contained within Article 5. The need to combat poverty is contained within Article 35. The need to support development is contained within Article 28.

Similarly, there is no explicit reference to an obligation to speak and act truthfully, as there is in the Declaration of Human Responsibilities. Again, it is the behavior related to this ethical statement that is covered in the declaration. Speaking and acting untruthfully is behavior that supports illegal executions, false imprisonment, illegal personal assault, false arrest, interference with freedom of thought, expression, and religion, non-representative government, and theft of property, amongst other crimes. The requirement to abstain from and prevent such behavior in the declaration of obligations is complements the ethical command in the Declaration of Human Responsibilities.


Reconciliation of Belief Systems

The prospects for world peace may be enhanced if common areas of agreement between different belief systems can be identified and expanded. As the main components of a belief system are its world view and its ethos, agreement, to the extent possible, is needed on both components.

As far as the aesthetic aspects of the ethos are concerned, understanding of different aesthetics is gradually being achieved by greater dissemination of art through the media and by cultural exchanges. It is unfortunate that because much of the international media are profit and/or ideologically driven, much bad art and propaganda is thrust on the peoples of the world. This might be ameliorated by greater agreement among the other components of belief systems.

Common recognition of a declaration of human obligations could provide a basis for agreement on moral matters. Developing such a declaration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has several advantages. First, the Universal Declaration was developed on a multicultural basis through extended discussion over a period of a year. This is quite different from the hurried declarations that can emerge from brief conferences. Second, it is a comprehensive and logically organized document that is readily available. There have been other declarations that have been rambling, self-contradictory, and poorly organized, or have been short and limited in scope. Third, the Declaration was initially accepted by an overwhelming majority of UN members, and subsequently affirmed by over 170 nations. Thus a set of obligations derived from such a well accepted set of rights stands a better chance of acceptance. Fourth, although it might be desirable to seek an updated declaration of rights and obligations capable of wide acceptance, this appears to be impractical at this time; the tendency to date has been to produce limited regional variants.

If the Universal Declaration is accepted as a basis, the derivation of the corresponding obligations is straight forward, and the result is probably in large part acceptable to most belief systems. The exceptions will be belief systems committed to personal gratification, conquest, robbery, and destruction. Nevertheless, performance of the proposed obligations is by no means easy. The adherence to the following obligations by the United States, for example, is questionable:

6 Prevent anyone from being arbitrarily arrested, detained or exiled.

15 Do not arbitrarily interfere with another person’s privacy, family, home, or correspondence. Your laws must protect people against such interference.

18 Prevent people from being tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Thus one has to recognize that fulfillment of obligations is going to be partial until their importance has been raised in people’s consciousness by education. While this is an important practical problem, it is still possible to undertake an examination of how this set of obligations resonates with individual belief systems. This is something adherents to those systems can undertake easily. It would be valuable in indicating common areas of agreement and raising topics for further discussion. It would give some hope of finding a kernel of morality that can be shared by different cultures.

The other major component of a belief system, its world view, is not treated directly in this set of obligations. However, there are obligations that affect the factual content of a world view:

36 Provide everyone with a free education . . .Give equal access to higher education to all on the basis of merit.

37 Make sure education provides full development of the human personality. . .

40 Make sure everyone can . . . share in scientific advances and their benefits.

These obligations cannot be achieved without general agreement on facts about the world and the people in it. This is where one seeks common ground among world views by identifying the range of facts that can be accepted by all. The biggest hope here is the set of the facts gained by scientific investigation, because these are intended to be reproducible by anyone. This being so, one has to recognize that there is an acknowledged degree of uncertainty about such facts, because an essential requirement in reporting and analyzing facts gained in a scientific investigation is to state the degree of uncertainty remaining and to draw attention to the existence of alternative interpretations of the measurements obtained. This degree of uncertainty is what opens the way for further scientific progress. By working away at areas of uncertainty, science pushes back the boundaries of the factual knowledge we are reasonably sure of. Thus the world view of a belief system, if it is to embrace scientific facts, has to tolerate uncertainty. This in itself would do much to pave the way for agreement among belief systems.



In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington concludes "Instead of promoting the supposedly universal features of one civilization, the requisites for cultural coexistence demand a search for what is common to most civilizations. . . as many have pointed out, whatever the degree to which they have divided humankind, the world’s major religions—Western Christianity, Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taosim, Judaism—also share key values in common. If humans are ever to develop a universal civilization, it will emerge gradually through the exploration and expansion of these commonalities." The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a major step forward in defining such commonalities. An accepted expression of the obligations entailed by these rights is essential to defining the moral code at the center of agreement among world’s belief systems and to moving towards a more peaceful world.



The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, Paris, 1948.  

The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, approved by the Ninth International Conference of American States, Bogotá, Colombia, 1948.

Declaration and Programme of Action, World Conference on Human rights, Vienna, 1993. 

A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, Proposed by the InterAction Council, 1997. 

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York, 1996.


Copyright © Rex Pay 2005, 2007