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Human Rights and Human Responsibilities

Kathryn Sikkink

Sometimes we get so enamored with our rights that we forget about our corresponding responsibilities. In order to fully realize our own rights and the rights of others, we also need to embrace and practice responsibilities.

For example, people in the United States like to think they have a right to vote and a right not to vote, but they don’t always remember their civic responsibility to vote. Unless we practice both our responsibility to vote and our responsibility to help make sure certain other citizens are able to vote, our right to live under democracy may be in peril.

College students vote at one of the lowest rates of any group in the United States. In focus groups I conducted with Harvard College students, I learned that students find voting difficult and complicated. Students, faculty, and administrators around the country are now working to change attitudes about voting and conquer the barriers our system puts in the way of these young, mobile voters. Partly as a result, the average student voting rate at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2018 elections more than doubled from the last midterm elections, jumping from 19% in 2014 to 40%, seven percentage points higher than the average increase in voting rates among all Americans.

There are many other issues where this idea of working simultaneously on rights and responsibilities is essential. To address environmental crises, we need to emphasize not only each individual’s right to a clean environment but also the obligations of other actors like states, corporations, institutions, and individuals to protect the environment. Now that our federal government has abdicated its responsibilities entirely with regard to climate change, we can’t just wait for another election in the hope that it will bring a government to office that cares about the environment. There is much that others, including individuals, can do in the meantime. Half of global carbon lifestyle emissions are produced by the wealthiest 10% of people in the world, so the individual responsibility of privileged people is particularly acute. Because wealthy people create more emissions, they have more responsibility to help reduce emissions.

One barrier to getting people to assume responsibilities for issues like a clean environment is the classic problem of collective action. People hope that others will take action and they can free ride. Overcoming free riding is always difficult, but it is especially difficult when each individual act is miniscule in its effect. We make an impact only by cumulating individual actions. One solution to the collective action problem is to develop strong social norms about appropriate behavior and to enforce those norms with social rewards and sanctions.

We have strong norms about some environmental issues—litter or recycling, for example—but not about the big lifestyle changes people can make to diminish their carbon footprint: living car-free, reducing airplane travel, using green energy, and eating a plant-based diet. These changes feel daunting: I myself have not been able to do all of them. But the secret is that smaller changes heading in the right direction can make a difference. According to a study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, reducing just one transatlantic airplane trip a year has more impact than anything else you can do except giving up your car. If you can’t move to a fully plant-based diet, says climate scientist Gidon Eshel, replacing beef with poultry is the next best step in the right direction, because beef production is much more resource-intensive than poultry production. It doesn’t have to be a dismal task. I’m finding that reducing my air travel actually improves the quality of my life, because it slows me down to enjoy the world around me instead of rushing from one trip to another.

Changes in norms are underway, so you aren’t on your own. Next time you are planning a long plane trip, check out the website to find out how much artic ice your trip will melt. If you can’t avoid the trip, consider offsetting the emissions the trip will produce with a donation to tree planting through the one-stop shopping for certified offset projects at the website.

Drawing on the work of philosopher Iris Young, I propose creating networks of responsibility to more fully implement our rights. All of us who are socially connected to structural injustices and able to act need to work together toward solutions. This is particularly relevant for the coronavirus pandemic. As I’ve written elsewhere, “Even if all governments were taking efficient action, but individuals didn’t also do their share by staying home and washing their hands, the crisis would not be averted.”

I encourage you to use this relatively simple framework yourself. When facing a human rights issue, ask yourself not only who bears rights but also who bears responsibility to promote the fulfillment of rights. Don’t just ask, “Who is to blame?” That is an important issue, but not always the most relevant one for implementing many human rights. Ask instead, “What together can we do?”

Kathryn Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

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