Emily Articulated: Human rights and responsibilities

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

As a sociology major in college, I got to take classes that zoomed out on the complex ways we organize and function as societies, learning and deconstructing theories based on large-scale patterns of human behavior. 

Emily Erickson.

Classes were named things like “Sociology of Education,” for which we spent a semester in roundtable discussions learning about global educational structures, and “The Intersections of Privilege,” during which we dissected how various social groups obtain and retain advantages over other, more marginalized groups.

These classes, and the richness of learning about the big ideas we are all active participants in constructing, imprinted sociological thinking in my brain, shaping the way I see the world and my role within it. 

In this regard, one of the most transformative courses I completed was titled “Human Rights and Responsibilities,” an in-depth analysis of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and the responsibility we have as global citizens to uphold it. 

We began by learning about the declaration itself, drafted in 1948 at the onset of the United Nations and in response to the Second World War. The document was born out of the cumulative efforts of world leaders to establish basic human rights, guaranteed to every person, everywhere.

After understanding the context of its drafting, we began to dissect the document itself. We learned that it was constructed from four pillars, or the principles, by which all rights are founded: liberty, equality, dignity and brotherhood.

My classmates and I discovered that the articles in the declaration were organized into four columns, with the first column dedicated to individual rights, like the right to life and the prohibition of forced servitude. The second column contained articles relating to individual political and civil rights, and the third column combined articles based on our rights to organize under the constructs of spirituality, religion and politics. Finally, the fourth column consisted of our inherent social, cultural and economic rights, like the freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

My professor explained that all of the articles in the document hold equal weight, with no individual right taking precedence over another. This means that the pursuit or application of one right cannot conflict with any of the other rights within the document. So, for example, one person’s right to practice religion cannot impact someone else’s right to safety.  

Although learning about the history and composition of the document was enthralling, the class became transformative once we began to apply our understanding of universal human rights to the things happening in real time in our communities and around the world.

The reality is, when we organize in groups, the diversity of our own beliefs and the ways in which we want to practice them, can and frequently do directly impact other peoples’ opportunities to do the same. We also often fail to look outside our individual experiences to ensure that exercising our own rights doesn’t prohibit our neighbors from honoring theirs.

When we use the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” as a road map to better navigating our ideas and beliefs, we can ensure our choices don’t infringe on anyone else’s inherent rights. We can overcome our individual biases, and keep ourselves and our practices in check.

Applying this to our communities, we can think about the different social and political movements in which we engage, and consider if those causes are meeting the standards set at the global level. We can ask the hard questions, like, “Is my right to freedom of opinion taking away from someone else’s right to security regardless of ‘race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’”? 

Or, “Is my right to freely participate in an expression of culture infringing on someone else’s rights against ‘arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home … honour and reputation’”?

Ultimately, it is a wonderful thing to be engaged in belief systems and to find community in shared ideas. But, in doing so, we also have a responsibility to protect our neighbors’ freedoms as much as our own, contributing to a shared culture of liberty, equality, dignity and brotherhood.

If you’re interested in reading the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” or are simply seeking a refresher, visit un.org/en/udhrbook for an accessible, illustrated version. 

Together, we can challenge discrimination within our own beliefs and those of our neighbors, and create a community in which every person’s rights are honored and upheld.

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